I look at biotic interactions, such as predator-prey interactions, and how these relationships develop through time, or are affected by environmental change. I’m lucky because I get to study both living and fossil organisms, and try to find connections between the patterns in modern and fossil ecosystems which might help protect modern ecosystems faced with climate change. This is called conservation palaeobiology. Basically, I want to know how and why animal relationships got to where they are today, and figure out how to protect those relationships.
For my PhD research at the University of Alberta, I am mostly working with marine snails and one of their main predators, crabs. Crabs are very strong and try to peel the shells of snails, much like you would an orange. The predatory behavior by crabs can leave scars on the snail’s shell. We can see this on both live animals and in the fossil record, and it can tell us how successful the predators are or how many there were. But because I’m interested in bigger picture questions, like how animals interact with one another, I get to study many different organisms! For example, I have also done a lot of work on both living and fossil encrusting organisms (like barnacles) and how they interact with the animals that they encrust (see Dr. Mark Wilson’s Meet the Scientist post here).
My main question for my current research is how predator-prey interactions have and will be affected by climate change. All of the carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere by humans is being absorbed by the oceans, and this makes the water more acidic. The more acidic the water is, the harder it is for animals that have shells or hard parts to grow those structures. For animals like snails that use their shells to defend against crabs, this might mean they will be vulnerable to predators. If the snails are wiped out because they can’t protect themselves, what will happen to all of the animals that rely on snails for food? There could be very large ecosystem changes, which is especially scary as we rely more and more on the oceans to feed our growing global population. I just finished a six month experiment that investigated how living snails respond to ocean acidification combined with predation, but now I also want to see how past ocean acidification events have affected snails and their ecosystems. If we know what happened in the fossil record, we may be able to prevent it from happening again to our animals today.
The best part about being a scientist is being able to explore what interests you, and to hopefully make a difference that benefits the animals and ecosystems you care about. I also get to be outside, either looking for fossils, or studying live ocean animals, which is so much fun! I’m also a science educator, so inspiring young kids, especially young girls, to pursue their interests in science is incredibly rewarding. Find a topic that interests you, but don’t be afraid to explore other possibilities. It’s important to think big picture, and to have other questions if your favourite one doesn’t work out. You also want to make sure that your research is somehow applicable to areas that are of interest or concern to a lot of people. Most importantly, though, I would say to never be afraid to ask questions, and make sure you ask lots of them. Sometimes you’ll feel like everyone is so much smarter than you, but I guarantee they are feeling the same way. Anyone can be a scientist, so long as you are passionate and never stop asking questions.