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Student Profiles

Alex BorowiczAlex Borowicz , a member of Heather Lynch’s lab, does fieldwork on the Antarctic Peninsula.  After starting out as a photojournalism student, Alex found his way to the Human Ecology program at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor where he completed his undergraduate degree.

How did you develop your research interests?
I worked with marine mammals during and after college and ended up in the Antarctic as a cruise ship naturalist. It’s hard not to get hooked on a stunningly beautiful and understudied landscape in the midst of rapid environmental change.
 
What specifically, are you studying?
I’m broadly interested in the effects of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s a simple system with a lot of species eating a lot of krill, but rising temperatures, melting glaciers, and changes in precipitation patterns are altering the marine spaces in which these interactions take place. Are there fewer krill? Are they moving? How do their predators change their lifestyles to reflect their new conditions?
 
What is the best part of doing field work? 
Besides being in beautiful places, what really gets me is the degree to which I have to think on my feet to get things done in a challenging landscape. It’s physically and mentally taxing and the conditions can change pretty rapidly. We want good data in a small window of time, so we often have to plan while we’re moving.
 
Can you describe an average day?
We work primarily off of commercial cruise ships, so we’ll wake up in the morning, land at a penguin colony and get to work. Much of the work is census-based (counting penguins) but there are a lot of angles being investigated at once, so it’s frequently a rush to count, deploy equipment, and scrawl down some other field notes before we have to be back on the ship to move elsewhere. 
 

Anna McPherran

Anna McPherran, a member of Liliana Dávalos’ lab, is currently in her fourth year of the doctoral program. She studies human impacts on an endangered group of Caribbean mammals called hutias over a period of thousands of years.
 
Can you go into more detail about what you are investigating?
I use a range of interdisciplinary methods – from genomics to stable isotope ecology to qualitative interviewing – in order to understand the most pressing threats to hutias and to inform the conservation of these unique animals. The integration of different methods allows us to answer questions that we normally wouldn’t be able to, and I think this is a really exciting development in what conservation biologists can do. So far, I’ve traveled to the Dominican Republic and Jamaica in order to study these animals and forge connections with local conservation and regulatory agencies.
I’m currently taking a class in qualitative interviewing from the Sociology department, and it’s been great to expand my knowledge and learn how to apply methods from other fields.

You have received departmental awards which helped you conduct your initial international research.  How would the receipt of additional funding enable you to do?
With more funding, I will be able to pay for the sequencing of a complete, high-quality hutia genome. While sequencing technology has become increasingly more affordable, the kind of analysis I’m doing requires extensive sequencing, which is more expensive.
 
How did your interest in this group of animals develop?
Even though I grew up in the city away from “nature,” I’ve always been interested in wildlife and conservation biology is my lifelong passion. When I got to graduate school, it was just a matter of finding an exciting system to work in, and I’m glad to be working with my hutias.
 
What is your educational background, prior to SBU?
I majored in Biology at the Macaulay Honors College at Queens College, CUNY. I was a first-generation college student, so receiving mentorship from David Lahti as I crafted my own research project on birdsong was a really important part of my professional development.
 

Allison Rugila

After completing her MA at Stony Brook, Allison Rugila joined the E&E doctoral program. Her research looks at how calcifying marine invertebrates and their microbiomes respond to environmental stressors like ocean acidification (OA) and hypoxia.
 
You completed a 6 week field experiment this summer. Can you tell us a bit about that?
This field project is part of a larger investigation of the microbiome’s role in host resiliency to climate change. My research broadly focuses on larval and early juvenile quahog clams, and their responses to seawater acidification and low dissolved oxygen stress (hypoxia). This summer I characterized differences in quahog microbiomes and host health among sites in the Peconic River, Forge River, and Shinnecock Bay (Long Island, NY).
In collaboration with Alyson Lowell (Graduate student, SoMAS), I also investigated potential mitigative effects of seagrass (Zostera marina) on larval and juvenile quahogs responses to seawater acidification. This project aims to determine how seagrass modifies the local environment and whether it can dampen the negative effects of acidification on quahog physiology.
 
How did you get interested in bivalves?
I have been interested in bivalve conservation since I first worked for a non-profit organization doing oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay (St. Mary’s River Watershed Association; www.smrwa.org). As larval life stages of bivalves are the most vulnerable to environmental stressors and the most critical for population persistence, I wanted my dissertation research to focus on this component of bivalve life history.
 
Are there any classes at SBU that have been particularly influential?
Biometry was foundational to my understanding of data analysis, data interpretation, and experimental design. Biometry (and now Bayesian Statistics) has been invaluable for building my coding toolbox.
 

Anna Thonis

Anna Thonis is a third year PhD student in Resit Akcakaya’s lab. The receipt of financial awards from the department has enabled her to start field work in Puerto Rico.

Can you tell us a little about your research?
My research uses both field work and quantitative methods to try to understand how the incorporation of data on biotic interactions (i.e. competition) and extreme events, such as hurricanes, may impact the future distributions and long-term viability of Puerto Rican anoles. Using manual removal and addition experiments of Puerto Rican anoles, I aim to quantify the degree of competition taking place between various pairs of Anolis species. This competition data will be integrated into species distribution models to determine if the explicit incorporation of biotic interactions improves the predictive performance of the models. I am also working on incorporating ecologically-relevant hurricane data for Puerto Rico into both species distribution models and population models to determine if hurricanes may play a role in shaping future distributions of anoles and/or impacting their long-term viability under climate change.

How has the receipt of departmental funding enabled you to conduct research?
The Stony Brook Excellent in Ecology & Evolution Award assisted me in renting a car in Puerto Rico for my summer 2019 field season. This was critical to my field work because Puerto Rico does not have adequate public transportation and I was traveling throughout the island on a daily basis.
The Robert R. Sokal Research in Statistical Biology Award funded the tagging equipment that I will use on the Puerto Rican anoles for my mark-recapture methods. I use VI Alpha Tags for tagging the anoles, which allows for individual identification often over many years.

How did you get interested in this topic?
Lizards have excited me since I was very young, but it was not until my undergraduate career that I realized I could pursue a career in conservation biology focusing on lizard conservation. As a research assistant to Dr. Brad Lister at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and later his Masters student, I worked on understanding how different futuristic climate change scenarios may impact the future habitat suitability of Puerto Rican anoles. I enjoyed this research a lot, and it led me to applying to work with conservation biologists who use quantitative methods to answer important conservation-related questions for my PhD.

When you are not working, what do you like to do on Long Island?
I really enjoy living on Long Island. I like the fact that when you travel east you are surrounded by farmland, but when you travel west you find yourself in one of the most famous cities in the world. To top that off, you’re completely surrounded by ocean, which I love.