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Nicole Johnston: Research Collaborator of July 2019

Meet Nicole Johnston, a PhD. candidate at Georgia Tech studying the effects of climate change on corals in both tropical and temperate environments.

Read on for a Q&A to delve deeper into the subject of her research and how to help save our coral reefs!

How did you get interested in marine sciences?

I became interested in the ocean at a young age through yearly family vacations to Florida’s west coast. By the time I was in college, I had decided to follow this passion and pursue a degree in biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology. While at Georgia Tech, I became very interested in understanding how climate change was impacting ecological interactions on coral reefs. After I graduated in 2014, I stayed at Georgia Tech to pursue a PhD.

What is the research focus of your PhD?

I’ve spent the past five years studying how climate change affects corals found in tropical and temperate environments. Corals from more tropical areas are used to relatively constant, warm environments. In contrast, the few corals in more temperate areas experience larger annual variation in temperature, light, and other physical factors. I wanted to know whether these differences affected how corals from these different environments responded to climate change and whether this might affect competitive interactions between these species as more tropical species move poleward due to climate change. My experiments are designed to provide insights into how tropical and temperate species interact as they begin to mix and form novel communities in the future. This may help scientists, managers, and conservationists prepare for or mitigate undesirable effects arising from novel communities of the future.

How does your research collaborate with CRF?

CRF’s research and conservation interests overlap with my own research through their interests in understanding coral bleaching and disease. From a day to day aspect, collaborating with CRF allows me to run experiments sustainably by using the corals from their nursery in my research. I hope that, in turn, my research will provide information to CRF on how different corals and genotypes respond to experimental warming and disease.

Why should the average person care about coral reefs?

Coral reefs are incredibly important ecosystems both ecologically and economically. They’re home to a countless variety of organisms and serve as nursery grounds for juvenile animals from other habitats. They protect coastlines from hurricanes and erosion, provide food sources to local communities, and serve as an ecotourism destination to sustain local economies.

In order to save the coral reefs, where should our focus be?

This is a hard question when coral reefs are faced with so many local and global stressors. I think our focus needs to be on finding ways to help coral reefs survive while we work on solving harder problems like climate change. This might mean finding ways to reduce other stressors while also increasing our understanding of which species are more resilient. At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a magic bullet; we need a suite of different solutions to save coral reefs.

How can the average person mitigate climate change?

There are so many things the average person can do to mitigate climate change, including changing your habits to reduce your climate footprint. To me, the most important thing you can do though is to use your voice. Support organizations that are working to fight climate change; contact your representatives and ask them to support measures geared toward climate change mitigation; spend your money at stores that have pledged to be part of the solution; talk with your friends, family, and neighbors and share the facts about climate change.

What is your favorite marine animal?

I love sharks in general, but the scalloped hammerhead is by far my favorite. It’s so cool looking, and there’s still so much that we don’t know about it.

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