CELS PhD Student at the Forefront of Biodiversity Research and International Collaboration

By Hannah MacDonald, CELS Communication Fellow

Houston native Elaine Shen recalls fishing along the Texas coast with her dad and eating their catch for dinner. The hours spent waiting for a fish to bite sparked her sense of wonder as she watched dolphins and other marine life pass by.

However, the Gulf’s heavy industrial coastline was also a part of her fishing environment. “When I was younger, I thought it was totally normal to drive by chemical plants, oil refineries, and large petroleum facilities to get to our fishing spots,” explains Shen. “I grew up in a place where the ocean is clearly used for its resources and the coastline is an unapologetic reflection of oil and gas.” As she got older, Shen viewed the coastline as an obvious example of man’s influence on the environment and climate change. The complexities of the intersection between marine life, major industry, and human sustainability piqued her interest in marine science. She also wondered how to protect marine environments while sustaining the livelihoods of people.

At a landings site, where fishermen sort their catch after a long night/morning of being on the reef. Photo credit: Iza Nurhaliza

As an undergrad at Rice University, Shen started out as a pre-med major but eventually changed course after meeting a prominent marine scientist at the university, Dr. Adrienne Correa, who mentored Shen and encouraged her to follow her passion.

Since Rice University offered few on-campus opportunities for budding marine biologists, she sought broader experiences at the Houston Zoo and Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Shen also took a tropical field ecology course in Belize and conducted her own research in Panama. Her research on reef biodiversity introduced her to her current field of research, environmental genomics, and bioinformatics.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from Rice University, Shen began searching for a Ph.D. program. That’s when she discovered Associate Professor Austin Humphries and Professor Chris Lane’s project on coral reef biodiversity in Indonesia. The project motivated Shen to pursue a Ph.D. from URI because it allowed her to continue working with environmental DNA for biodiversity research. Environmental DNA is collected from seawater or sediment samples, which are then analyzed bioinformatically to get a better understanding of the ecosystem it came from.

Shen takes advantage of the fact that marine life generates environmental DNA from shedding skin, scales, and feces. “Rather than having to visually identify species in the field I can get fingerprints from their DNA to figure out who is present in that ecosystem,” says Shen, describing the cutting-edge molecular process used in biodiversity and conservation research. “Since this is at the forefront of applying bioinformatics to theoretical ecology questions, I see myself as a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none,” she explains, “This enables me to collaborate with experts in all different areas, which is exciting.”

Some of those experts are located in Indonesia where she enjoys collaborating with local universities to further the impact of her research. “I work with early-career scientists and students and teach them bioinformatic skills that I have learned,” she states. “In exchange, they share their knowledge of Indonesian coral reefs, fisheries, fish genera, and species.” This reciprocal collaboration is meaningful and exciting to Shen but also showcases Indonesia’s lack of resources. “My research has really highlighted the inequities to access biodiversity research more globally because there isn’t the same amount of knowledge, support, and funding.” By acknowledging that most biodiversity research around the world is done by Western scientists, Shen sees her role in Indonesia as training local scientists in bioinformatics to build their skill set so that they can run these projects themselves.

Shen’s research has been recognized with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Initiative Student Research Award. As for her future goals, she’d like to see her work integrated with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which was created to support ocean health by building a framework that ensures ocean science supports the sustainable development of the ocean. This work ties in effortlessly with her original interest in sustaining marine environments while sustaining people and her international experience. “I want my work to support making people’s lives better, whether that is my peers or communities whose livelihoods depend on the ocean,” concludes Shen.

In addition to her research, Shen is also helping to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion on the URI campus. She is a Diversity and Inclusion Badge Program alumna; the graduate advisor to Seeds of Success; involved with planning events for VOICES; the graduate student representative for the CELS Diversity Committee; and an active member in the Women of Color Network. “I am continuously learning how to be a better advocate and colleague to my peers,” she states.  “My goal is to create the infrastructure and foundation for graduate students to share their voice, dig deep, and think critically because everyone has an important perspective to share.”