Meet Emma Strand, a PhD student studying acclimatization of coral and passionate about science outreach!

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

I study the physiological and (epi)genomic responses of coral to climate change stressors, specifically warming waters and ocean acidification. In order to accurately predict a reef’s potential for survival in future conditions, it is critical to understand the mechanisms underlying the process of acclimatization; the ability of an organism to make long term either physiological or biochemical changes that produce a phenotype or function that is potentially beneficial to survival in their new, stress conditions. These changes can either be on a physiological or genomic level, which either way has the potential to produce a change in function that leads to tolerance. Physiologically, an organism will likely have to make energetic trade-offs between functions like metabolism and reproduction when experiencing a high stress environment. My projects aim to elucidate how changes to the organism’s epigenome and transcriptome underlie these phenotypic changes in response to stress. This work aims to help guide effective, long-term coral restoration and conservation efforts. With marine environments rapidly changing due to anthropogenic stressors, corals are struggling to keep up with the new conditions. I choose this topic to integrate genomic resources and knowledge to optimize the efforts in conservation to be effective long-term.

What is your scientific background?

I graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a B.S. in Biology, and was fortunate to have many opportunities for research during my undergraduate degree. I started in intertidal eco-physiology, looking at phenotypic plasticity in the california mussel in response to thermal stress. I then moved into coral reef ecology, looking at long-term studies of reef health off the coast of Honduras. I really enjoyed the physiology aspect of my first lab and the coral reef aspect of my second, but wanted to move into genomic work. I then worked on molecular ecology on baitfish populations around the island of Bermuda. I took my favorite parts of these experiences and combined them for my current graduate program, focusing on coral ecophysiology and (epi)genomics at University of Rhode Island. My first experience in this field before research was working for the Seattle Aquarium as an engagement volunteer, and ever since I have kept a heavy focus on science communication and outreach.

How did you choose your field of study?

As cliché as it likely sounds, I wanted to make a legitimate difference in whatever field I chose and knew this would lead me to a conservation-based position. I found the topics that were most interesting to me through all the experiences I had before my graduate program, and knew this field would keep me challenged for the rest of my career. I found a program and a field that I can use my scientific knowledge and research skills to share my passion for coral reefs and conservation efforts.

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?

One of my biggest role models for women in STEM, high-level research, and science communication is Dr. Ruth Gates. When I was an undergraduate and navigating my graduate school and career decisions, I looked up to her as exactly what I wanted to be in terms of a speaker and research scientist. She was a powerful example of how I could use my passion to integrate education and rigorous science to have an impact on conservation and education. Dr. Gates was a large part of my decision to work with coral reefs and heavily influenced my career goals early on.

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

I am very grateful to have several, incredible mentors that have heavily influenced my career path in science. Gretel vonBargen, Dr. Roy Houston, Dr. Wes Dowd, Dr. Lani Gleason, Dr. Wendy Binder, and Dr. Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley shaped my early education in high school and undergraduate experience. These mentors are a huge part of how I got to where I am now.

My biggest and most influential mentor and role model is my current advisor, Dr. Hollie Putnam. A powerhouse in our field, she continues to push boundaries for women in STEM and is a strong, female role model for not just me, but all women in URI’s graduate program. She is our biggest fan and continues to push us to a higher level of critical and scientific thinking. She is incredibly ambitious, driven, and passionate. I don’t think I’ve ever been more simultaneously intimidated and in awe of someone at the same time. I’m 100% sure this woman can walk on water.

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?

As a graduate student, or with scientific research in general, it is really easy to get sucked into working all the time because there is always something more you could be doing. You could always be reading more, writing more, doing more lab work, etc. I schedule my work hours in 30 minute increments, put my headphones in and force myself to be productive for the full day so that I don’t feel the need to work when I get home at night or feel like I can’t take weekends. My time schedule also includes exercise, and time to catch up with friends and family. If a task is in my schedule then it will get done, and get done before a deadline. If I keep to my schedule and am disciplined about how I spend my time, then there is no pressure to work on the weekends or guilt about taking time off. The “work” I choose to do on the weekends includes science communication and outreach efforts, which I love and doesn’t feel like work. It really comes down to how you prioritize what you’re juggling. I tend to leave the work I love doing for the weekends (like outreach efforts), and leave the work that will take the most brain power for my disciplined hours during the week.

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I’m originally from Seattle, Washington so I love to do anything outdoors! Hiking, climbing, running, etc. I’ve been playing basketball since I was old enough to hold a ball so my stress reliever is often going to the gym and shooting around. My best ideas related to the work I do have come from that time 🙂

Visit Emmas website, or follow her on Twitter!