Thesis Project

Three weeks post-Fiji, and MAN I am itching to get to New York! I move out there on August 12th, and now that my flight is booked, my apartment is ready and waiting, and orientation dates are set, these next 2 weeks are going to move like molasses – nothing going on between now and then besides my 24th birthday and lots of boyfriend/family time (SO horrible 😉 ). In addition to a ridiculous amount of basking in the sun and reading fabulous books, I’ve been spending a lot my time reading up on more literature concerning my future Master’s thesis project. I am super lucky to have a pretty firm idea of what I’m going to do before technically starting my program, and our recent Fiji expedition gave me the chance to collect and process my FIRST SAMPLES (*gasp*). Holding those beautiful specimens in my hands before subjecting them to the rigors of processing (ripping gills out, injecting tags through tails, dunking in poison, then jamming into packed barrels – poor guys) made me want to whisper a little prayer of gratitude to their souls residing in watery fish heaven. No, not want to, I actually did thank them – the poor Australian missionaries at our hostel would have been given yet another reason to avoid our smelly, fishy group if they had seen me whispering fervently over those little dead bodies of coral groupers and black snappers. ANywayyy, as a result of all my reading and thinking I wanted to take a moment to do a post about my proposed project and what I’m hoping to accomplish in the next two years as a Columbia grad student.

My first sample, Plectropomus leopardus – the big guy on the right!
More unsuspecting samples – Lutjanus fulva

First thing’s first, a few words about population connectivity! Yayyy, learning! Population connectivity basically refers to the inter-relatedness of different populations of a species over a certain spatial scale. Hmm, even more basic – the idea that this Nemo population over here is genetically related to, and therefore probably came from or vice versa, that Nemo population over there. Connectivity is usually measured through genetic methods because of the inconvenient little fact that most marine animal babies have a pelagic larval phase, or a period of time right after fertilization where they are infinitesimally small (aka hard to track) and float around in the ocean currents until they are ready to settle back into a reef or kelp forest or rocky tide pool or wherever they like to live. Because larval dispersal is basically the black box of marine science at the moment, one of the best ways we can determine who goes where after they’re born is by looking at genetic similarities between populations.

Why the heck is population connectivity important, you wonder? Psh, besides the awesomeness of baby fish and crabs and even barnacles managing to find their way back to some semblance of a normal life after drifting through a vast obstacle course of currents and predators etc – it’s important to marine conservation biology in a lot of ways. If you know the population dynamics of a target species, you can figure out how to best protect them from things like overfishing and habitat degradation. Setting aside marine protected areas (MPAs) is one of the most popular methods of protection, as they can fully protect nursery and spawning grounds and have been shown to increase fish biomass and reproductive output, providing a nice little spill-over effect into adjacent unprotected waters. But you can’t just go around arbitrarily telling fishermen not to fish in certain places, so understanding population dynamics helps inform the process of setting these MPAs up. Hence population connectivity studies like mine! By determining where and how different populations are connected, you can determine which areas of the ocean would be most important to protect. Populations that are genetically distinct from all others are super important to protect on the basis of preserving biodiversity, and populations that act as a larval source for other populations are important to protect on the basis of “reef seeding” (one population can help “re-seed” others in case of environmental crises, like oil spills or a huge storm). Marine management planners use such data to set up the most effective marine reserve networks, and island countries like Fiji are very interested in protecting their marine resources.

Here’s a GREAT animated video my advisor, Dr. Josh Drew, did to illustrate this concept:

Sooo, MY thesis project will attempt to uncover the connectivity patterns of 3-4 species of fishery-targeted reef species in Fiji (BAM! That sentence right there is actually all you need to know about my project, BUT, because I am super stoked and on a roll, I will continue to foist this long-winded explanation upon you unfortunate readers). Next summer, I will pack myself up and head back to Fiji to collect many, MANY more fish samples from all over the islands. I will only collect species that are important to local Fijian fisheries, such as groupers, snappers, goatfish (potentially), etc. I’ll visit as many geographically distinct locations around the country as possible to get a good snapshot of widespread genetic distribution. Then I’ll come back to New York and process the genetic samples at the American Museum of Natural History, where all my whole fish samples will also be catalogued and stored for the use of future generations of researchers. And THEN, after lots and lots of statistical analysis and writing and re-writing, I will put together a huge connectivity map of economically important Fijian reef fish.

Ahhhh, the crowd goes wild!! Fijian marine management planners will rejoice nationwide!! Marine reserves will be established and fish will be plentiful everywhere!!

Hahhh, okay well…maybe it won’t go down like that. But in my heart that is how it will go down. So that’s that. Thanks for listening, kids!

Screen shot 2013-07-15 at 10.49.10 PM
My, what healthy gills you have! Let me just take a few of those…


4 comments on “Thesis Project

    • Yepp you’re definitely right, the airfare alone is a huge amount to swallow! I’m currently waiting to hear back from a few grants I’ve applied to over the last year, and if none of those hit I’ll be able to at least get TO Fiji through a US Embassy Teaching Grant my PI and I have lined up (we’ll be putting on a kind of science camp for Fijian undergrads in the spring, yay!).

      AND if all else fails – crowdfunding. Hah! Wish me luck.

      • Good luck! I haven’t yet had to deal with such issues, but I try to get informed on all the different possibilities before I actually have to look for funding.

        It’s cool that you have thought about crowdfunding; have you looked into what platform you would use? Beyond the usual Kickstarter, Indiegogo or Pozible (based in Australia but I think people from other countries can put up their project too), there is a website specialised in research project –

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