Interview with a researcher
PhD Project Title: "Estimating the Potential for Adaptation of Corals to Climate Change.";
Supervisors: Associate Professor Peter Ralph (UTS), Dr.Madeleine van Oppen (AIMS) and Emeritus Professor Richard Frankham (Macquarie University)
PhD conferred: 2010
Austria is a landlocked country yet, for Nik Csaszar, the 'call of the sea' has been with him from an early age. Being born in Vienna may seem like a bit of a handicap for a budding marine scientist but in fact the University of Vienna has a very significant Department of Marine Biology.
"Austria has a long tradition in Marine Biology, especially in deepwater studies of the Adriatic Sea for example. During my undergraduate course we also went to the Red Sea and California for field work,"; Nik said.
Nik's Masters Thesis looked at coral disease in Bermuda but there was always a master plan to do his doctorate in Australia.
"The Great Barrier Reef is the 'mother of all reefs' and it has always been my ultimate aim to further my studies on coral in Australia. It's where I learnt to dive 15 years ago and after I finished my Masters I came back here to meet people to see if I could get a scholarship,"; he said.
It was a gamble that eventually paid off. After visiting all the relevant Universities and Research Institutes on the east coast of Australia a meeting with Associate Professor Peter Ralph bought his dream closer to reality.
"I met Peter and did some volunteer work with him, then returned to Austria, made an official application and won a scholarship which I started in March 2006. It had taken one year to get to that point but it was worth all the effort,"; Nik said.
Nik's project, a collaboration with The Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville, is the first of its kind to examine the heritability of heat tolerance in corals. Coral growth rates are slow so it's not practical to study them over generations. Using coral species as a model organism the research takes a quantitative genetics approach by exposing the coral to heat stress and measuring traits such as growth rates, photophysiology and gene expression.
"I am using temperatures in the range of 1-2°C above average maximum temperatures. This is what is predicted will happen [if atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise] under current climate change models. By looking at the effect on the genetic variation in the coral I hope to be able to make predictions about whether the coral adapt to higher temperatures. The higher the genetic variation then the more potential there is for the coral to adapt,"; he said.
The research is timely and urgent , and, hopefully, will provide insights for coral reef conservation and management. Nik has presented preliminary results at the 2008 International Coral Reef Symposium in Fort Lauderdale.
"There was a good response. There are a lot of modelling studies but no actual studies that give heretibility values. This is a beginning and can be a stepping stone for further research into other coral species and other genetic traits,"; he said.
So why is a citizen of a landlocked country drawn to coral in particular?
"Corals inhabit the most diverse ecosystems, they contain all the taxa, all the different lifeforms. There are not just 10,000 species of insects like in a rainforest,"; he said
Any scary moments under the sea?
"I get more scared crossing the street. I haven't met any great whites but Reef Sharks are just curious not dangerous,"; he said.
If all goes to plan Nik will complete his thesis mid 2009. Beyond that, post doctoral research in Europe may beckon but Australia will not be forgotten.
"I think I will find it hard to go back. UTS is a very friendly environment and working with Peter and Madeleine is fantastic. And I'm not finished travelling yet. I want to see more of Australia,"; he said
Any place in particular?
"Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, it's beautiful and, for now, pristine,"; Nik said
His research may well have a hand in keeping it that way.