Interview with a Researcher
PhD Topic: "Internal impact of carbon dioxide limitation on coral bleaching"
Supervisors: Associate Professor Peter Ralph and Dr.Ken Brown (UTS)
PhD conferred: 2009
In her relatively short career as a marine environmental scientist Lucy Buxton has explored some of the world's most exotic and alluring locations. Bermuda, Galapagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef. These are just some of the places Buxton has worked, researched and marvelled on in her journey from England to Australia and in her transition from undergraduate to doctoral candidate. In the final stages of her thesis she now has time to reflect on the past three and a half years at UTS and look to the future in an environment where issues about climate change and sustainability are debated on a daily basis.
"I was working at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences and met Associate Professor Peter Ralph from UTS Science. We ended up doing some collaborative research and from that initial introduction I pursued the opportunity to undertake a PhD with Peter in the area of ocean acidification," she said.
It proved to be an inspired and fruitful area for research. The oceans naturally absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, however too much CO2 entering the ocean causes a chemical change in the seawater, termed ocean acidification. The highly publicized report by the Royal Society in 2005 highlighted this newly recognised threat and scientists raced to get data to answer fundamental questions about the potential impacts to coral reefs and ecosystems.
"Ocean acidification is like the 'evil brother' of global warming, both caused by excess carbon dioxide, but the acidification has received relatively little attention. Dissolution of calcium carbonate structures is one of the main concerns. However, some scientists felt there could be a positive spin to the effect, whereby the increase in dissolved CO2 may contribute to increased photosynthesis and therefore greater primary production in oceans. My project focused on the photosynthetic responses of corals to changes in the availability of inorganic carbon as this was underrepresented in the research. I wanted to get some baseline data on how the zooxanthellae in the coral responded," she said.
Zooxanthellae are the organisms that live in a symbiotic relationship with coral. Early results suggest that while free living algal symbionts are well adapted to surviving over a wide range of pH and inorganic carbon concentrations, when in symbiosis they respond differently and therefore corals could be vulnerable to elevated the combined temperature and pH.
"It has certainly opened up a whole new area of research that will now be taken up by other researchers here at UTS and will generate valuable data. This is very personally rewarding after more than three years of highly focussed work," she said.
Buxton advises other aspiring postgraduates to find a subject they are really interested in, and enjoy, because you have to be committed both intellectually and financially.
"When I began my postgrad studies I was an International student and a mature student. You really need to work out your finances and do the leg work regarding grants, funding and paid work because it can be daunting. But the benefits are there and I have loved being involved with the undergraduate students, going on their field trips and seeing their progression to Honours students," she said.
Interestingly for someone whose CV includes "shark feeder at the London Aquarium" and for whom swimming with over 100 Hammerhead sharks off the Galapagos Islands was a career high, Buxton claims the Nudibranch as her all time favourite creature.
"They are one of the coolest animals, so colourful - like a Picasso painting. They are small, can be bright purple or pink, symbiotic or poisonous. They are like some crazy experiment."
After her thesis is submitted Buxton would eventually like to pursue a career in natural resource management, education or science communication. What ever her role you can be sure it will involve the ocean and protecting the myriad creatures that inhabit its depths.