School of Chemistry and Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland
Harnessing microbes to promote coral growth and improve coral reef restoration

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SUMMARY

Coral reef restoration programs are exploring using sexual propagation to grow corals to maintain diversity and scale coral growth to very large scales, however, the mechanisms behind coral larval settlement are still largely unknown. Previous work has identified that microbial biofilms are potential inducers to promote the settlement of different species of coral larvae, yet the specific identity of these inducers has yet to be found. My work involves trying to pinpoint specific microbial species and functions that reliably induce coral larval settlement for various Great Barrier Reef coral species utilized in reef restoration programs. I am first looking at Acropora tenuis, an important reef building coral on the Great Barrier Reef, and combine settlement choice experiments with DNA sequencing and network analysis in order to look at community dynamics and microbial species and function identity in microbial communities promoting high levels of larval settlement. 

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

Not only is the Great Barrier Reef the most iconic coral reef in the world, it is undeniably one of Queensland’s greatest legacies. It’s significant draw for eco-tourism is a common thread connecting towns and cities across Queensland, affirming its importance in Queensland’s identity. Lately, it is no secret that the Great Barrier Reef has struggled with the increasing amount of mass bleaching events from warming ocean temperatures. However, the Great Barrier Reef’s declining health has not gone unnoticed, and Queensland has fostered some of the most advanced coral reef research and restoration programs in the world that are at the forefront of reef science. Past methods have utilized asexual propagation, where fragments of coral are used to grow new coral colonies to be later out planted on the reef. However, newer methods are utilizing coral larvae with sexual propagation. In sexual propagation, coral larvae from spawning events, settle and metamorphosize in aquaria to grow new coral colonies. This method is more beneficial for reef restoration purposes as it is more scalable, economically practical, and maintains genetic diversity. However, current sexual propagation methods have been held back by a settlement bottleneck, which has impeded its use in reef restoration programs.

My research addresses this bottleneck by further investigating microorganism’s role in coral larval settlement in a variety of Great Barrier Reef coral species. I was able to identify potential settlement inducing and inhibiting microbial taxa for Acropora tenuis coral larvae with settlement choice experiments, next generation sequencing, and network analysis. This research is novel because this is the first time we have utilized co-occurrence networks with coral larval settlement choice experiments to identify potential coral larval settlement inducing and inhibiting microbes in a level of detail not possible before. These results provide foundational knowledge of coral settlement mechanisms that can be further interrogated with validation experiments and applied to reef restoration programs. This is also the first step in addressing the settlement bottleneck, and after further validation experiments, we can eventually utilize microbes to overcome the settlement bottleneck. Therefore, sexual propagation methods will be more streamlined to scale up programs to larger sizes than before and be more economically friendly in the future. Currently we have completed this work for one coral species, but have plans to cover a wide range of coral species from different families across the Great Barrier Reef by the end of my PhD. Furthermore, this more informed knowledge on coral larval settlement mechanisms will also improve Queensland’s coral aquaculture. This will be useful in the future, so that we can successfully grow more coral species in aquaria than previously possible. These corals can be used for further experimentation in restoration programs and research as well as archiving coral species to maintain accessibility to coral biodiversity. My research contributes to the larger goal of restoring the health of the Great Barrier Reef, which will further upkeep and protect Queensland’s greatest natural legacy. 

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)

My life changed when I first visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The idea of an alien ocean world captivated me in all the possibilities of what could be discovered. When I first learned what a marine biologist did, what began as a child’s curiosity of the unknown, immediately became a life’s purpose. This inner fire discovered at seven and cultivated ever since has translated into every stage of my studies and scientific career in order to achieve my ultimate goal of becoming a marine scientist. No matter the geographical barriers, academic challenges, or systematic obstacles I encountered, the only option was to push forward because I believe so strongly in what I do and want to achieve. This drive pushed me to stay curious, to always keep learning and improving in whatever challenged me and to keep aiming for the highest standards in everything I pursue. I am a role model to women and girls aspiring to work in STEM because I am passionate in what I do. 

My journey to become a marine scientist was not without its heartache and obstacles. My initial passion enflamed my work ethic to take every opportunity available to me to become the best scientist I could be, even if I was the only woman in the room. I worked hard to maintain my GPA during my undergraduate degree, so that I could be accepted in James Cook University exchange program, securing the only spot available out of hundreds of applicants. Coupled with volunteering in an undergraduate marine ecology lab, I gained the necessary field experience to be accepted into international PhD programs. I moved across the world to Queensland in order to pursue my marine scientist dream and overcame international barriers of living and working in a foreign country. Not only did I face hardships adjusting to a new country, but I began my PhD in January 2020, two months shy of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a time of great uncertainty of the unknown and closed borders, I adapted and preserved through my research despite it all. I am a role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM because I have the courage to preserve through any barriers in my way. 

As I progress through my career, my passion for the ocean has transformed to encompass my surrounding community. As I come closer to achieving my goal in becoming a marine scientist, what I value in my work is how it can best benefit the community. Not only do I want to learn more about the ocean, I would like to share that passion with the general public to further empower community actions. As I work to become a leader in my field, my new aspirations include uniting people from different backgrounds and strengths to foster more inclusive and improved marine science. I am a role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM because of my commitment to foster new opportunities and empower the community.

ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

Before university, my first introduction to STEM was through volunteer positions as a science communicator. My first volunteer position was at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz, California as a volunteer docent. Not only was it my job to talk to the general public about displays we had on local marine research conducted by the neighboring university, but why they should care about it too. There I learned the importance of involving the community and how to effectively communicate research ideas and outcomes. Those skills carried on to other volunteer positions I have held since being in Australia, like Reef Check and the UQ Marine Society. In Reef Check I attended an intensive workshop on how to communicate marine conservation information to the general public and how to organize science communication events. Furthermore, in the UQ Marine Society I have been a social media officer for the last two years and learned how to utilize social media to broaden our reach and further our impact. With the marine society I am able to promote events and volunteer opportunities to undergraduates and prospective students to get more involved within the marine sciences at UQ. With our events we create space for women in academics to promote their research and cater to a large audience of women marine science students to get involved at the school and boost up their CV with workshops and volunteer opportunities. 

At the university level, I have built on my science communication experience to become a mentor. After being featured on a Women in Ocean Science Instagram page, a group of girls from a marine science club at a high school in Florida invited me to host a talk. For this talk they emailed me a list of questions before hand asking a variety of questions on academic and volunteer advice in how to break into marine science and the larger biological fields. I was able to explain what classes I participated in at their age, how I navigated university, and what it is like working aboard to a group of mostly girls. After the talk it was an open forum where they asked what it was like being a woman in STEM and for me to embolden them on their own STEM paths. Furthermore, I was also able to mentor fellow women undergraduates during my time volunteering in an undergraduate lab at San Diego State University. There I was able to guide women in their first year of university on how to do various lab techniques, collect data, and further genomic data analysis. When undertaking sampling trips, I was able to guide them on the methodology used and help them acquire skills they could further use in their scientific careers. 

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