Feature Friday: Nury Molina

Hi, Nury Molina! Welcome to Reefbites. 

email: nurymolina@ucsb.edu

Nury is a PhD student in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California Santa Barbara. Nury’s research focuses on understanding the mechanisms that prevent or promote algal phase shifts on coral reefs. Read more about her work below! 

Give an elevator pitch of what your projects are about.

Coral reefs are incredibly important ecosystems that support biodiversity, fisheries, cultural services, and coastal protection. On healthy coral reefs, there is a balance of coral and algae. Herbivorous fishes help maintain this balance by providing critical top-down control on algae. However, many disturbed coral reefs have shifted from coral to algal-dominated states. The degree to which algal phase shifts are stabilized or reversed is poorly understood. My research aims to understand the dynamics of herbivorous fishes and how they support coral reef resilience. This involves understanding the functional roles of different herbivorous fish species, the effects of nutrient enrichment on algal development and consumption, and associations among algae that protect them from herbivory. Some of the approaches I use or plan to use are herbivory assays, behavioral observations, and nutrient manipulation.

Why is this project important and timely?

Coral reefs worldwide are increasingly impacted by the pressures of overfishing, nutrient enrichment, and climate change resulting in drastic shifts to persistent algal-dominated states that have severe societal and ecological consequences. This state of increased algal abundance and low coral cover once established, is difficult to reverse. Coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to these shifts following coral-killing disturbances as opportunistic algae can benefit from the increase in newly available space. Given that disturbances such as coral bleaching are increasing in frequency and intensity, it is important to understand the mechanisms that control the establishment and persistence of algae in order to facilitate coral recovery.

What is the broader impact and implication of your work?

In addition to managing global stressors, local management is critical to delaying further reef loss. For example, fishing pressure and nutrient pollution are two local stressors on reefs that managers can act on. My work will elucidate the roles of different herbivorous fish species and the impacts of nutrient enrichment on algae. Part of my fieldwork is conducted at the Moorea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research site. My work will contribute to their goal of understanding coral reef resilience. In addition to conducting fieldwork in Moorea, French Polynesia, I will also conduct research in American Samoa. As a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar, I am working closely with the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa and the coral reef management agencies of American Samoa to provide research needed for fisheries management decisions. 

How did you come to work in this field?

I was introduced to this field as an undergraduate when I participated in the REU The Diversity Project with Dr. Paul Barber, Dr. Peggy Fong, and Dr. Caitlin Fong in Moorea, French Polynesia. I studied the different methods used to conduct herbivory assays on coral reefs. While in Moorea, it was very striking to see firsthand reefs covered in algae and others dominated by coral. This ignited my passion for coral reef ecology! I continued to study herbivorous fish foraging behavior while at UCLA in Dr. Peggy Fong’s lab with Shayna Sura. I knew I wanted to continue in this field and I am now in Dr. Deron Burkepile’s lab at UCSB.

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

My top graduate school survival resource is connecting with my cohort. It has been really important to connect with people that are going through something similar so we can support each other. 

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