Melissa Pappas

PhD candidate, University of New South Wales

,,

Be persistent as hell. My persistence rather than my skills is what got me my opportunities.

What do you do?

I research the diversity and thermal tolerances of symbiotic algae that live in corals. The symbiotic algae in the family Symbiodiniaceae (sim-bee-oh-din-ee-ah-say) proved the coral with up to 90% of its required carbon through photosynthesis. There are hundreds of species of these symbiotic algae and while they all function to feed the coral, many have other advantageous functions. These functions are things like increasing coral growth and calcification, protecting corals from harmful UV exposure, or protecting corals from high temperatures that can lead to coral bleaching. My research aims to identify the species of Symbiodiniaceae in corals common in the Great Barrier Reef. Once we know the baseline community of these species in healthy corals, we can see how the community changes in response to increased temperatures that can cause bleaching. Bleaching occurs when the symbiotic algae are damaged by high UV and sea surface temperatures and are expelled from the coral host. Once expelled, the coral looks white because it has transparent tissue and you can see through to its white skeleton. Another goal of my research is to identify the thermal and UV tolerances of different species of Symbiodiniaceae to understand which corals may be more sensitive or tolerant in bleaching events based on their dominant symbiont species. Symbiont shuffling, or changing symbiont species to those better suited for the environment, has been found to help corals buy time in the face of climate change. However, the species that are thermally tolerant may not provide the coral with as much carbon, and could cause other problems in the coral health and growth. My research will help to answer some of the questions around mechanisms of resilience and adaptation to warmer oceans through the symbiont community of reef-building corals.

Why did you choose this field?

I had always wanted to be a marine biologist, which seemed like an ambitious goal for a kid from Arizona. I actually think that living far from the ocean made me appreciate it more. When I decided that I wanted to pursue marine biology, my parents sent me on a trip to the British Virgin Islands to learn how to SCUBA dive, and I was hooked. However, even without that opportunity, I had enough motivation to pursue this field since high school, and that drove me to apply to universities on the coasts with strong marine science majors. I found my dream school, Eckerd College, which was known for its hands-on marine science courses and its beautiful campus in St. Petersburg, Florida. My four years in undergrad strengthened my passion and knowledge in marine biology and I was sure I had found my calling. I was fortunate enough to have amazing mentors at Eckerd College who helped me apply to the NOAA Hollings Scholarship Program. I was accepted into the Hollings program which awarded partial scholarship for two of my fours years at Eckerd and an opportunity to conduct research in a summer internship. This internship gave me invaluable experience and networking with NOAA, which I believe catapulted me into my next endeavours. After graduating from Eckerd College, I had plans to teach marine science at a local elementary school when I found an opportunity to do research in the Red Sea at a university in Saudi Arabia. I applied for this internship and was accepted probably due to my persistence. After learning how to SCUBA dive, I had always dreamt of diving in the Red Sea because it is one of the most colourful coral reefs in the world. To me, this seemed like an opportunity I could not pass up. My internship at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) was focused on the endangered giant clams of the Red Sea and their associated symbiotic algae, which is the same type of algae that live in corals. My research here motivated me to continue in graduate studies and I returned to KAUST to pursue a Master's degree in marine science. My Master's research was also on these giant clams and how they respond to high temperatures. Because the Red Sea is not as extensively studied as other regions where coral reefs exist, much of my research was novel and I was able to produce novel research on a study subject I was very passionate about. After completing my Master's, I applied to a PhD program in Australia. My entire reason for pursuing a PhD was because I had been reading the names of expert researchers in published articles about giant clams, coral bleaching, and this symbiotic relationship between these organisms and microscopic algae. One name that kept popping up was the professor who is my current supervisor. I was lucky that I found a person I wanted to work with before I applied to a PhD program. I think this is one of the most influential aspects of graduate school that any perspective student should be aware of. If you find the right person to work with, you will have a much easier time getting your degree. Now, I am a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales studying the same microscopic algae in corals. I am very passionate about my project because it has direct implications for the future of our reefs. I feel empowered to work on a project that aims to solve some of the problems caused by climate change. This feels like a very selfless thing to dedicate my life to, and I have found a lot of my own purpose through my studies. Additionally, I have found a passion for communicating my science. I am one of the pioneers of SciArt communication, where I aim to join science and art together to better communicate climate change topics to the general public. There is so much beautiful and impactful science in academia that does not get noticed by the public or those who actually manage marine resources, and I hope to help bridge that gap.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

I wish that I would have known that pursuing passion in both art and science is ok. Back when I was in high school I felt as though I had to choose between the two. Even in undergrad, I felt like my science degree did not leave much room for my creative side. If I went back in time to talk to my younger self, I would have encouraged my passion for SciArt much earlier. However, the journey of even realising that has been important for me in both science and art and in my communication skills around SciArt.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love working in STEM because I am surrounded by curious minds. When we have a question about a living thing, we design an experiment to study it and try to answer it. Many times we don't answer the original question, but just continue to find more unknowns. It is a fun and dynamic environment, and having that mindset while working in a field that truly aligns with my purpose is extremely rewarding.

Best advice for next generation?

If you want something bad enough and you continue to work for it, you will achieve it. My pursuit in marine science was laughed at when I was in high school, and there were many times where I thought this is too challenging or "why am I doing this?" When that happens, I always found myself reassessing the things I wanted to do in life and the things I cared about. It always brought me back to science and most importantly ocean life. Be persistent as hell. My persistence rather than my skills is what got me my opportunities, and then I was able to learn from those.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams.” - Roald Dahl

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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