SURF student finds purpose, passion in research

Emma Lederer(Biology major Emma Lederer, a rising senior at Providence College, is conducting research in Professor Jack Costello’s lab for her third Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) with Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR. Here, Lederer continues the series of blog posts she launched last summer during her research fellowship to share her perspectives and develop her science communication skills.)

RIwritesFor environmentalists like myself, the 2015 Paris Agreement posed a clear victory. The terms and extent of the agreement were not perfect, but the pact thrust climate change onto the world stage in a way that nobody could ignore; climate change was accepted as a concern for most major political and economic powers in the world, and for a moment major advances toward sustainable living seemed possible worldwide.

The most significant decision made in Paris was that all the countries involved signed voluntary pledges for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. These pledges were voluntary in the sense that there are no real regulations set up to punish a failure to follow a pledge, but the pressure of keeping the promise and staying on course with the other world powers was meant to serve as a system of enforcement (1). This was an amazing feat of climate diplomacy — 195 countries signed an agreement that, “is widely accepted as the best, most promising effort to date to tackle climate change” (2).

The United States, under President Donald Trump’s leadership, pulled out of the Paris climate accord earlier this month. But, other world leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, and Angela Merkel promised that their countries, respectively France, Canada, and Germany, would keep their original promises made in 2015 (3,4,5). Additionally, American scientists, conservationists, and activists also will continue their efforts to reach lower carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

For the past few years, I have been researching the movement patterns of small jellyfish and ctenophores, called siphonophores. The changing ocean has resulted in a huge increase in numbers of jellyfish and siphonophores in certain areas, so understanding exactly how these animals work and exactly why there are so many is an important step in understanding the broader impact of global warming on the earth’s oceans.

Portuguese man o’ war are a type of siphonophore that have become a pest in the Mediterranean in the past few years (6). Jellyfish overpopulation have been a problem for fisherman, getting caught in nets, and clogging filtration systems (7,8). The change in population dynamics that have caused such an abrupt shift in siphonophore and jellyfish populations may seem insignificant, but small changes in population dynamics like the ones I have discussed can accumulate and cause massive problems.

“If we allow climate change to continue to accelerate exponentially, we will lose the basic resources humans rely on to survive.”

Global warming doesn’t just mean the world’s getting hotter, but rather that a lot of delicate ecological systems are changing in ways that we can’t quite foresee. Every ecosystem is made up of different trophic levels in which different species serve a specific role. If you take away a part of the food chain, the entire structure can fall apart. Luckily, most ecosystems have multiple species filling a role, and this high biodiversity allows the system to bounce back when numbers are depleted. However, when you deal with critical and productive ecosystems such as estuaries and mangroves, where low biodiversity exists, the collapse of one part of a food chain likely will lead to complete destruction. Estuaries and mangroves store and produce so much of the energy that fuels other ecosystems, including corals or seagrass beds, that we simply cannot live without them.

Research labs like the one I work in at Providence College hold great value and contribute to the greater body of scientific knowledge. Though we tackle issues that may seem disconnected to global warming, like understanding the way jellyfish move, climate change tends to affect organisms in ways we don’t always expect. Jellyfish and siphonophores both use jet propulsion to move through the water. Jet propulsion on a singular or multi-jet level conserves energy and allows an animal to move dynamically throughout the water columns without expending too much energy, as opposed to modern submersibles, which expend far more energy to move in a much less dynamic way.

If we can fully understand the way jet propulsion works, we may be able to engineer submersibles that utilize jet propulsion to save energy. Siphonophores coordinate up to 20 or 30 jets to move through the water with no central brain or nervous system. They defy the rules we normally use to classify animals as individuals; they are made up of a colony of individuals, but these individuals cannot survive outside of the colony. Siphonophores seem to be somewhere between organs and individuals.

My hope is that the more we discover about the natural world, the more we will value its precious systems and pursue compliance with the changes sought by the Paris accord. If we allow climate change to continue to accelerate exponentially, we will lose the basic resources humans rely on to survive. Given what we know, finding compromise, improving the Paris accord, and pushing forward on this global quest offers the best hope for our future rather than complete abandonment.

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