Eleanor Vaughan - previous winner of the Dr Manning Award

Please tell us about your background

I grew up in Hertford, a small, land-locked town in south-east England, but even from a young age, I took any opportunity I could to visit the coast and explore the rock pools, where I became enthralled watching small silvery fish darting between crevices in the pools and crabs scuttling around underneath the rocks. Learning to snorkel and SCUBA dive during my teenage years allowed me to pursue this fascination further, as I could spend hours with my head under the surface observing the amazing range of marine life in both local waters and overseas. 

My passion for becoming a marine biologist and studying coral reefs really stemmed from a school project during my AS Levels, as I had decided to write a report on coral bleaching. I chose this subject for the project after noticing a truly shocking image on the front page of a newspaper. It was a picture showing a vast expanse of coral reef in the Great Barrier Reef that had completely bleached, with the accompanying headline: “Coral Reefs are Doomed”. However, as I continued to research this topic for the project, I found that the more I discovered, the more captivated I became by the symbiotic relationship between corals and the microscopic algae (Symbiodinium). From the tiny biological interactions between these species to their profound global impact on the marine, terrestrial and human worlds, it hit me how much there still was left to discover, and that none of these worlds could afford to lose coral reefs. 

It is slightly ironic that that article ultimately fuelled my determination to challenge the negative outlook, and instead work towards solutions to protect and preserve such fascinating and crucial ecosystems. Now, thanks to both of my undergraduate and master’s degrees in marine biology from Plymouth University, I have been able to expand my knowledge and interests in a wider range of marine ecosystems and species, as well as learn numerous applicable field, laboratory and analytical research skills (including the unique opportunity to complete the HSE Professional Diving course during my degree). However, there was something about coral reefs that kept drawing me back to them. 

Thanks to a successful EU ASSEMBLE grant application with my undergraduate supervisor, Professor Jason Hall-Spencer, I was able to complete my undergraduate dissertation on the optimum temperature for photosynthetic rate in corals in the Red Sea during a summer internship at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat, Israel. Through this, I was not only able to develop my understanding and my specific interests, but it also made me realise that I wanted to pursue a career in coral reef research. 

So far, I have had some very lucky opportunities to help me build up to this, thanks to the internship at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, and recently starting my PhD at Lancaster University, where I’m studying the impacts of nutrients on coral reefs by looking at the stable nitrogen isotopes in the tissues of macroalgae. Working at the National Marine Aquarium last year also helped me to develop my public speaking and communicating skills, which I have since found to be hugely beneficial when I need to present my academic work. Ever since I started studying marine biology, my love for either being on or in the water hasn’t changed, and I still make the most of living by the coast by trying to go SCUBA diving, stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) and kayaking as often as possible, as well as learning new activities like surfing.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking with the support of the Dr Manning Endowment Award

I recently completed a six-month internship in Dr Ruth Gates’ lab group at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, a world-renowned research institute on Coconut Island in the middle of Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Hawai’i, where I was involved in their current “Assisted Evolution/ Super Coral” research. The main goals of this five-year project are to study the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification on the coral reefs around Kaneohe Bay, which recently went through two El-Nino-induced bleaching events in both 2014 and 2015. Despite living under the same environmental conditions, some colonies of coral didn’t bleach or die relative to those adjacent to them, so Dr Ruth Gates and her team decided to find out whether these “resilient” colonies have certain underlying biological mechanisms which allow them to withstand these stressful events and thus have an advantage over bleached types. They also wanted to determine whether the genes that express for these mechanisms can be “switched on” at a faster rate by exposing corals to mild stress in the field. The aim of accelerating these natural “resilient” processes within corals could help them to keep up with the increasing frequency and intensity of bleaching events as a result of global climate change. 

I was primarily involved in two of the main associated projects embedded within this, which were called “Transgenerational Acclimatisation” (TGA) and the “Reciprocal Transplantation Experiment” (RTE). 

For the TGA study, we investigated the effects of ocean acidification on the rice coral Montipora capitata for six months, monitoring and measuring smaller fragments taken from both previously bleached and non-bleached colonies from reefs in Kaneohe Bay, measuring monthly changes in photosynthesis, respiration and growth rate, to see the long-term effects of being kept under stressful conditions. We also wanted to see what effect the exposure history of the parent colonies would have on reproduction, and whether the larvae from the corals that didn’t bleach would also turn out to be more resilient by either inheriting the “resilient” genes, or acquiring the actual physiological “traits” via epigenetic processes. During the spawning season of M. capitata (which occurred around the new moon in June, July, and August) we collected egg-sperm bundles from each individual colony to measure important physiological parameters such as fecundity, sperm motility, and egg size. The key part of this experiment was to then selectively cross-breed the gametes between colonies that responded differently during the previous bleaching events (i.e. bleached x bleached, non-bleached x non-bleached, non-bleached x bleached), and that had also been exposed to either high or ambient CO2 conditions in the experiments, to determine which cross would result in the most “resilient” offspring. 

For the RTE project, we attached ~3400 small coral fragments, taken from selected reefs in Kaneohe Bay with known differing environmental conditions (i.e. one site had higher variability in temperature and pH), onto mesh racks, which were then put back out on coral “tables” on the reef. Some of these fragments were then transplanted to racks on the “opposite” reef site to determine if they could cope with changes in their local environment. Physiological experiments to measure parameters such as respiration, photosynthetic efficiency and growth rate, as well as molecular analyses of gene expression, will now be conducted at three-month increments to see whether exposure to new and different environments will accelerate the expression of these “resilient” genes. 

In addition to the main “Assisted Evolution” projects, I also worked on another study which was originally conducted in 2014 by Gates Lab members Dr Hollie Putnam and Jen Davidson. This project involved looking at the responses of 15 different genotypes of M. capitata corals to ambient and high pCO2 conditions by assessing the inter- and intra-genotype variability in the physiology and heritability of traits. I removed coral tissue from the skeletons of over 200 fragments, using standard airbrushing techniques so that these samples could be used for physiological (protein and chlorophyll α content) and molecular (genomic and transcriptomic) analyses. Once the final components of the analyses have been completed by my colleagues, I will also be involved in the final analysis, writing and editing processes of this study to prepare it for publication.   

Over the six months, I gained so many invaluable skills and experiences that it is difficult to mention them all, but I took every opportunity to volunteer and help out various members of the Gates Lab to gain as much knowledge and skills as possible. As would be expected in any highly productive lab, each week was very different; from carrying out essential daily tank measurements and maintenance, to helping with coral physiology experiments and learning advanced molecular skills such as extracting RNA and DNA from the different components of the coral holobiont (coral, symbiotic algae and microbial community). I was also able to use my HSE professional diving qualification from Plymouth University to assist with fieldwork using both scientific diving and snorkelling, from recording abundance and health of the colonies affected by the recent bleaching events in Kaneohe Bay, to deploying temperature and light loggers, and transplanting the fragments for the RTE experiment. 

I also am extremely grateful to the Gates Lab for providing the funding for me to attend the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Honolulu, Hawaii in June (the largest international conference on coral reefs to date). This gave me an invaluable opportunity to listen to and network with coral scientists at the top of their field from around the world, as well as develop my knowledge and understanding of a greater diversity of topics and methods used within coral reef research. It also gave me the chance to attend my PhD supervisors’ talks and discuss how some of the ideas being presented during the conference with them could help me with my own PhD research. I also feel that attending the weekly lab meetings and discussions, and being given responsibility for the running and maintenance of the tank PGA experiments from start to finish, will be the most beneficial to my development as a marine scientist in the long term. 

These experiences taught me a vast amount about project management, organisation and the ups and downs of putting a theoretical plan into action more than any other experience I have had. During my master’s research at the Marine Biological Association (MBA) at Plymouth, I learnt how to be resilient and find alternative solutions when some elements didn’t work in an experiment, but thanks to my internship, my ability to consider and prepare for potential logistical or technical limitations and problems has significantly improved. This should now help me to be more rigorous and organised in every stage of a research project to a more professional level, and has also given me the knowledge and confidence to implement this into any future work, including my current PhD project.

How does receiving this award make you feel and how will it make a difference to you?

I felt extremely grateful and honoured to be selected for the award, as there are many other students within the University who are seeking external opportunities to improve their skills and who are equally as deserving. Receiving the support from the Dr Manning Award allowed me to pursue my passions and career goals as a marine biologist and gain such a wealth of knowledge and experience from my internship, as it allowed me to spend an extensive amount of time working at HIMB. It was also particularly rewarding to obtain this funding through a source from Plymouth University, as it felt like it was still continuing to support my career even after I finished my course and graduated. 

As a result of this internship, and the invaluable range of experiences I gained through it, I was actually offered a Royal Society-funded PhD studentship at Lancaster University in coral reef ecology with three supervisors who are all highly respected in their fields. I will be researching the effects of nutrients on coral reefs through isotopes in macroalgae to identify how local human impacts (such as coastal run-off from agricultural fertilisers and wastewater) can reduce the ability of corals to recover from a bleaching event, as anthropogenic nutrients can allow macroalgae to grow excessively and out-compete corals for space, sometimes resulting in a shift from a highly-diverse coral-dominated ecosystem to a macroalgae-dominated state. This research will allow me to utilise my skills from both Plymouth University and my internship, and to continue to develop as an independent marine scientist. 

This award was provided by a donor to the University. Do you think it is important the individuals and business continue to support current students in this way, and why?

I feel that it is very important to have as many different sources of funding for students as possible. There are so many opportunities to gain experiences in the area you’re interested in by researching options at numerous universities, industries, NGOs etc. and completing internships or volunteering, either in the UK or overseas. From my personal experience, I feel that internships and/ or volunteering are ideal ways of gaining the specific and relevant work experience needed to enhance your own skills for the jobs or area of research you’re interested in. In some cases, you may even have slightly more flexibility in an internship than in paid employment, as you can assist with and be involved in more than one project relevant to your own interests and expand your skillset, knowledge and experience. However, so many of these opportunities are lost because in many instances it is not possible due to financial constraints, especially if they are unpaid. 

I discovered so many hidden costs that very quickly add up when organising my internship, in addition to flights and accommodation, including visa fees, the international fees associated with using a UK bank card for any purchase, local transportation, and many other daily expenses. In addition, it can also be difficult to obtain funding from mainstream sources such as universities and research councils, as these are either widely known or highly competitive sources. Therefore, I believe that by making extra sources available through donations from businesses, industries or individuals, especially those for specific causes, not only provides a whole new range of opportunities to offer financial support, but if they are also only available for a certain type of subject or student, it greatly narrows down the number of potential applicants so you have a greater chance of success.