BIOS Coral Reef Ecology Students Make a Splash at International Science Conference

Seven students who participated in the BIOS 2021 summer Coral Reef Ecology course are celebrating their contribution to the 2022 Ocean Sciences Meeting conference proceedings after submitting two abstracts based on their experiences in Bermuda. Both were accepted for oral presentations at the international conference, which was held in a virtual format for nine days beginning February 24. One abstract focuses on the scientific research they conducted during the three-week course, while the other highlights the benefits of intensive summer courses for early-career scientists. “I wasn’t quite ready to leave BIOS and disconnect from all the wonderful people I met and valuable connections I made there, so I was excited for this opportunity to keep working with our BIOS cohort,” said Emma Korein, 29, a first-year doctoral student at the University of Delaware (bottom row in bright pink shirt).

The Ocean Sciences Meeting (OSM), held jointly between the American Geophysical Union, the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, and The Oceanography Society, is one of the largest international ocean sciences conferences. The 2022 meeting, which was scheduled to be held in Honolulu, Hawaii will now take place virtually due to COVID-19 related concerns on February 24 through March 4. More than 5,300 scientists from 75 different countries will participate.

Among these participants is a group of seven students who submitted abstracts based on their time at BIOS during the summer 2021 Coral Reef Ecology (CRE) course. One presentation features the coral reef research they conducted during the three-week course. The other highlights the positive impacts of the CRE course on early-career scientists.

“Last year’s cohort was an exceptional group of go-getters,” said CRE instructor and reef systems ecologist Eric Hochberg. “This is the first time we’ve had OSM abstract submissions based on the course and the science conducted during the course, but it’s going to be something I keep encouraging.”

Most of the students weren’t familiar with the conference until the last days of the course, when they overhead Hochberg talking about his travel plans with teaching assistant Michael Wooster. Intrigued by the opportunity to see each other again, which was made even sweeter by the prospect of traveling to Hawaii, they began to discuss how to apply.

An intriguing opportunity
“Eric said that Ocean Sciences was a great opportunity for us if we wanted to attend an international conference and meet again in this context,” said Chloé Stevenne, 27, a third-year doctoral student at the University of Liège in Belgium. “We then talked about the possibility of presenting something about the course [itself] as some of us were only undergraduate students and did not have any research to present.”

Hochberg pointed out that research conducted during the course, which involved extensive field and laboratory work, would most definitely be considered as a submission, and that the conference also included a session on topics related to ocean science education.

“I honestly didn’t realize that a group of students could submit an abstract about something as ‘non-scientific’ as our experience as students and young professionals collaborating at a summer program, nor did I think the results of our short program would be enough for an abstract,” said Emma Korein, 29, a first-year doctoral student at the University of Delaware. “But Eric convinced us there was great value in our experience and work, and I’m grateful for this because it was an amazing opportunity.”

“We talked about it casually one evening and some of us got motivated to participate since we wanted to stay in touch after leaving Bermuda and take on the challenge of the [submission] process together,” said Jonathan Jung, 27, a first-year doctoral student at the Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.

For the education presentation, which was submitted to the conference session Fostering the Development of Collaborative Scientists, Projects, and Environments in Research Internships, Graduate Programs, and the Workforce, each student on the team wrote a separate abstract.

“Having us each write an abstract revealed how we differed slightly in our approaches to explaining and communicating the topic at hand, but also our common experience as a group,” Jung said.

Ultimately, they voted on one abstract and had the submitting author, Annalise Spahr, 19, a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Liverpool in England, refine it and take over further administrative responsibilities. For Spahr, this abstract represents her first official academic contribution to the field of ocean science.

The result was a presentation titled Collaboration During a Time of Separation: How Ocean Science Needs Connection, that highlights the challenges that early-career scientists face in the field of ocean science, and how summer programs can help build lasting personal and professional relationships.

‘A testament to motivation’
“I think the challenges we faced collaborating internationally are a testament to everybody’s motivation to make these conference submissions a reality,” Spahr said. “Communicating through time zones and busy [schedules] was a struggle, and something I touch upon in the presentation.” Everyone agreed that scheduling times to meet and work on the presentation was one of the most challenging, but ultimately rewarding, aspects of the collaboration, as it taught them persistence and patience.

“We really forged meaningful relationships during the CRE course and this project was the perfect way to keep in touch and continue to grow our friendships and also our professional network,” Stevenne said. Korein reflected on the amount of pride she felt once the abstracts were accepted, and how much more fun it was to collaborate on a “self-motivated” project with people from all over the world than her day-to-day work.

For the science presentation, which was submitted to the session Innovative Science and Technology for Assessing Coral Reef Health, the team nominated a lead, Ceridwyn Hunter, 20, a third-year undergraduate student at Michigan State University, to write the abstract and liaise with Hochberg on science-related questions. CRE co-instructor Yvonne Sawall was also consulted prior to abstract submission, as she led the students during field-based data collection in Bermuda.

Their project, Assessing Modal Metabolic Rates between Atlantic and Pacific Reefs, assists in developing a baseline for coral reef metabolism, which can help scientists better define the conditions that indicate healthy states of coral reefs. Over the course of two months, the students analyzed data, which included daily photosynthesis rates collected from coral reefs in Bermuda, as well as those acquired during the NASA-funded CORAL mission from reefs in Hawaii, Palau, Guam, and the Great Barrier Reef. Hunter then worked closely with Hochberg to develop the asynchronous oral presentation that would later be uploaded to the OSM platform.

“I have never presented at a professional science conference, so, for me, working on this with my fellow students and Eric was a wonderful, eye-opening experience,” Hunter said. 

Ongoing benefits, especially to younger students
The benefits of the CRE course and OSM keep growing. For Jung, this will be his first professional conference. It motivated him to submit his own abstract, in addition to the two he worked on with his BIOS cohort. Stevenne has been to multiple professional conferences, but she was also inspired to submit an independent abstract based on research she conducted for her master’s thesis. Both noted a desire to continue collaborating, this time on a review paper about the effects of nutrient inputs that vary in both location and time on coral reefs.

Spahr, one of the few undergraduate members of the team, spoke of the joy of witnessing friends pursue rewarding careers. “Seeing their academic success is motivating,” she said.

Hunter, also an undergraduate, was similarly impacted. “This experience allowed me to test the waters of my future career path with plenty of support from my co-authors, which I believe is a unique experience,” she said. “As an undergraduate, almost all aspects of preparing for OSM were foreign to me. Struggling through them with help from everyone has made me better prepared to continue my career as a scientist.”

“It’s a shame the conference didn’t take place as planned, as the opportunity to present in person, and of course see each other again, would have been good for this group to have,” Hochberg said. “But I think the experience of collaborating internationally and working through the challenges that comes with that was also really beneficial.”