ECR Spotlight is a series of interviews with early-career authors from a selection of papers published in Journal of Experimental Biology and aims to promote not only the diversity of early-career researchers (ECRs) working in experimental biology during our centenary year, but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Zoe Dellaert is an author on ‘ Reconciling the variability in the biological response of marine invertebrates to climate change’, published in JEB. Zoe is a PhD student in the lab of Dr Hollie Putnam at the University of Rhode Island, USA, investigating molecular mechanisms of the responses of reef-building corals to climate change and environmental stressors at organismically relevant scales.
Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus
I have just finished my first year of graduate school, so I am still very early in my research career. Throughout my undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, I was very fortunate to spend three summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, USA, studying the calcification and symbiosis of the temperate coral Astrangia poculata using a variety of microscopy-based techniques under the guidance of Dr Loretta Roberson. This experience helped to solidify my interest in coral biology and interest in using fine-scale techniques to answer questions about coral basic biology with ecological implications. In graduate school, my research focus has shifted to focus on the molecular and cellular biology behind the resilience of tropical corals to thermal stress. The resilience of corals is directly tied to the livelihoods and social resilience of coastal communities which economically depend on healthy coral reefs. I am passionate about this line of research and aspire to continue to work in this field for the rest of my career. In my current role as a PhD student in Dr Hollie Putnam's lab at the University of Rhode Island, my research focus is on utilizing and advancing molecular and cellular techniques to expand our knowledge of how corals respond to thermal stress and dysbiosis, particularly in the context of climate change. My aim is to provide a more in-depth and nuanced understanding of how corals react to environmental changes, particularly by examining signal transduction cascades and epigenetic processes with a greater spatial resolution than currently captured by traditional tools in coral biology. I am especially interested in studying the mechanisms by which reef-building corals and their symbionts can rapidly acclimatize to future climate scenarios.
How would you explain the main message of your Commentary to a member of the public, and how would you explain the broader impact of research in this area?
The main message of our Commentary is to refocus the scales at which we study ecologically sensitive organisms such as corals. For many ecological and large-scale questions, bulk and community-level approaches can answer the questions as needed. However, for questions regarding the molecular biology of these organisms and their resilience to environmental change, we need to measure their environment and their biological responses on scales that are appropriate to what the organism is experiencing. Doctors cannot diagnose a disease of the lungs by looking at the patient's feet. We need to be looking in the correct tissues and organs, and on the right scales, to understand how organisms such as corals are responding to global change, with the ultimate goal of predicting how these ecosystems will look in the future.
Is there anything that you learned while writing this Commentary that surprised you?
I think I was most surprised to realize the breadth of literature available on these topics. We had to greatly pare down our reference list to meet our word limit. In our line of work, it can be easy to get caught up in reading only papers within our specific interests and study organisms, but there is so much literature out there where people have come before and pondered or answered questions in ways that you would never think of for your system or organism. This is the main thing I will take away: read broadly and speak about your research with broad audiences and peers with diverse interests and backgrounds; this is how new ideas come about and how issues get solved.
What do you see as the main value of Commentary-type articles?
I think they can provide a thorough overview of the literature and history of a specific field while also highlighting the diversity in thought and literature. I think they can be of immense use to people who are new to a field or topic, and inspire new questions and thoughts just by the very synthesis of papers that might not always be juxtaposed in typical research articles. Hollie and I also just really enjoyed writing this piece together, finding literature we had never read, and articulating our ideas in this format.
If you had unlimited funding, what question in your research field would you most like to address?
I would love to contribute to uncovering the signal transduction pathways that occur when a coral experiences thermal stress (including coral bleaching), and understanding the mechanisms that corals possess to acclimate to new environmental conditions through the possible modulation of these pathways. This may seem like something we should already know, and we know pieces of it, but the picture is still confusing and unclear. So many brilliant minds are working on this question, so I feel hopeful that progress is being made despite the immense time pressure many in our field feel to catch up to the catastrophic environmental damage happening to ecosystems worldwide, especially coral reefs.
What changes do you think could improve the lives of early-career researchers, and what would make you want to continue in a research career?
I think that myself and many of the early-career researchers I interact with are acutely aware that science does not happen in a vacuum, and as scientists, our lives are not separate from what is happening in the world around us. I think that an improved focus on justice, diversity, equity and inclusion from our mentors and leaders in the field, and an emphasis on having this be a part of what it means to be a scientist, would greatly improve the lives of all early-career researchers. I plan on continuing on in a research career, and I hope I can continue to find mentors and supportive environments such as my current lab, where our lab members are encouraged to bring our whole selves to the table and actively participate in and write about concepts in justice, diversity, equity and inclusion as part of our research plans. In the future, I hope to pass these messages and mentorship lessons along.
What's next for you?
I am continuing my PhD research here in Dr Hollie Putnam's lab at the University of Rhode Island. I've just finished a transformative course entitled the Molecular and Cell Biology of Symbiosis at the Marine Biological Laboratory and am looking forward to continuing to make progress with my research and dissertation over the next several years.
Zoe Dellaert’s contact details: Department of Biological Sciences, University of Rhode Island, 120 Flagg Road, Kingston, RI 02881, USA.