Feature Friday: Rachel Alderdice

Hi, Rachel Alderdice! Welcome to ReefBites. 


Rachel is a PhD student at the University of Technology Sydney, and has joined the International Coral Reef Society Student Chapter team as a member of the twitter content team! Her research focuses on exploring coral gene signatures of deoxygenation stress to better understand the mechanistic basis underpinning bleaching susceptibility. Read more about Rachel’s work below! 


Give an elevator pitch of what your projects are about.

Sufficient oxygen supply serves as the universal lifeline for most living organisms. Yet lowered oxygen availability on reefs has become alarmingly intensified by climate-warming and anthropogenic water pollution. Whilst corals can thrive under routine low oxygen fluctuations, their oxygen limits remain unknown. Recently, deoxygenation events on reefs have been identified to cause mass mortality via coral bleaching, a phenomenon akin to the globally recognised mass coral bleaching under marine heat waves. My research explores what genes frame the coral stress response to a reduced oxygen environment and how this gene system can inform improved understanding of bleaching susceptibility and inherent tolerance to diverse stressors.

Why is this project important and timely?

Corals have now faced their third mass bleaching event within 5 years on the Great Barrier Reef, yet how corals stress – and ultimately bleach – as a result of the many interconnected abiotic and biotic factors remains unknown. Amongst these factors, ocean deoxygenation has been recently profiled as a hidden threat to future coral reef survival. Understanding corals’ molecular responses to fundamental stresses, such as scarce oxygen availability, is needed to unlock the foundation of what makes corals ‘winners or losers’ when pushed to their limits. In doing so, reef management efforts can be refocused and refined based on the spectrum of ‘robustness’ found amongst coral species and populations. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your work?

As oxygen availability becomes reduced on reefs, we question the survival of coral reefs and the biodiversity that can be sustained. We aim to raise the profile of global ocean deoxygenation to encourage collection of oxygen metadata and in doing so, help identify vulnerable locations (and refuges) for more directed management. We propose that genes regulating low oxygen stress may also be responsible for regulating key stress-mitigating pathways that are triggered by other global stressors. In doing so, my findings will reveal underlying mechanisms that govern broader stress tolerance for corals. Together my work will provide further evidence needed to drive local and global policy change for improved reef climates and water quality to best facilitate the recovery of key marine ecosystems. 

How did you come to work in this field?

Growing up on the small island of Ireland, I was never far from the sea. Whether diving or on foot, witnessing the damage done to the coastal waters first-hand fuelled me to become a marine biologist and an environmental activist.  During my integrated Master of Marine Biology at University of Southampton I was particularly alarmed by the fragility of coral reefs. Yet I was equally impressed by the complexity of coral’s stress response systems – particularly when I conducted my first research that contributed to uncovering how some corals bleach with brilliant colours instead of white, in an attempt to recover from stress. Still to the present day, I am learning the many marvels of coral and yet all that we could lose without urgent action to halt climate change, regenerate reefs and conserve our ocean life. I will continue striving to protect our coral reefs through my PhD efforts and beyond. 

What is your top graduate school life hack or survival resource?

Be prepared with a plan A, B, C… many ideas do not go to plan, and this is OKAY! Don’t be afraid to speak up about your failures to your peers- everything becomes more manageable when tackled together. Actively seek advice from seasoned graduates or mentors, their experiences offer a resource in navigating through the unchartered waters of a PhD. 

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

Resist the temptation to compare your PhD to someone else’s. We can empathize with the similar obstacles we face but our pathways are unique and our contributions to our fields can come in many different forms.  

Photo credit: Morgan Bennett-Smith

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