Feature Friday: Rowan McLachlan

Hi, Rowan McLachlan! Welcome to Reefbites.


Rowan is an Earth Sciences PhD student at The Ohio State University, studying physiological acclimatization in Hawaiian corals to long-term shifts in baseline seawater temperature and pH. Read more about Rowan’s work below! 

Give an elevator pitch of what your projects are about.

For my dissertation research, I am investigating the capacity for Hawaiian corals to acclimatize to long-term shifts in baseline seawater temperature and pH using a two-pronged approach. The first is a large-scale survey of physiological variation along natural environmental gradients in eight Hawaiian coral species from six locations around the island of Oʻahu. The second approach is a two-year mesocosm experiment exposing three coral species to elevated temperature, reduced pH, and the combined stress of elevated temperature and reduced pH. I hypothesize that Hawaiian corals can acclimatize to changes in seawater conditions through increased heterotrophic feeding and physiological trade-offs associated with changes in tissue energy reserves, and that the capacity and success of such strategies will be highly species- and provenance-specific.  

Why is this project important and timely?

The physiology of some Hawaiian coral species is severely understudied, and the potential for acclimatization following long-term (>2 years) exposure to ocean warming and acidification has yet to be assessed in Hawaii. The survey and experimental aspects of my research address several gaps in our current knowledge and understanding of how Hawaiian reefs will fare under future climate change conditions. Understanding species-specific responses to changes in the seawater environment is of the utmost importance for informing ecosystem-based management strategies and other conservation efforts. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your work?

Several studies have predicted that coral reefs will be unable to cope in future due to ocean warming and acidification. However, these predictions are often based on short-term laboratory experiments, or in situ observations on reefs that span natural gradients in seawater conditions. However, laboratory experiments often do not take into account the variety of ecological interactions which affect the response of corals to changing conditions. In addition, the short-term nature of such studies fails to accurately predict how corals will respond on longer time scales. Finally, in situ studies often do not represent the intensity of heat stress expected in coming years. The results from our long-term mesocosm experiments will more accurately inform us on the capacity for Hawaiian coral reefs to cope with future changes in ocean conditions.

How did you come to work in this field? 

I took a gap year before starting my undergraduate degree at the University of St Andrews during which, I backpacked across Australia and learned to SCUBA dive. After witnessing the Great Barrier Reef, I knew that I wanted to work toward preserving these precious coral reef ecosystems.

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

Make sure you have a hobby / sport / activity outside of your graduate school program, and dedicate time towards such activities every week. During my PhD, I learned to sail and dance salsa and tango, and through these activities I built a large network of friends who helped me recharge whenever graduate school life was becoming too stressful. They reminded me that there is more to life than just my PhD research, and it is important to find a work-life balance.

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

Try and build a large network of academic mentors. Having a group of people who you respect and who support you is so important! The more connections you build, the more opportunities that will come your way.

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