Science for (sea) change

Stephanie Green is keeping our oceans-and our economy-alive and well.

Katie Willis - 10 June 2019

Wideshot of oceanographers scattered along a rocky shoreline facing a grey, stormy ocean on the west of Vancouver Island near the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.

The main areas of research in Stephanie Green's lab are ecology, biological invasion, climate change, and remediation. Photo by Chris Neufeld, provided by Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.

Beautiful Bamfield

Located on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the traditional territory of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations, the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre is a research and teaching facility shared between the universities of Alberta, British Columbia, Calgary, and Victoria, and Simon Fraser University.

"Bamfield provides the unique opportunity for students to be right there, where the research is happening, to see scientists working right before their eyes, whether it's going out in boats or seeing an experiment running in the wet lab," says Green. At the centre, students are immersed in life on the coast and in the lab, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that, for many like Green, is the beginning of a life-long love of marine science.

It all started in the tenth grade. On a field trip to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, a teenage Stephanie Green fell in love-with marine ecosystems, of course.

"It left such an impression on me," explains Green. "Bamfield showed me that it is possible to formalize and pursue your curiosity about nature. It taught me how to ask questions about patterns I was already observing and to try to understand why things happen."

Now, Green finds herself returning to Bamfield, B.C., each fall, teaching and conducting her own research as an assistant professor (biological sciences). Her work focuses on understanding the changing ecosystems of our oceans and creating a more sustainable future. This means finding methods to maintain and restore the integrity of marine environments as well as the industries that rely on them.

"We look at fisheries, tourism, and other livelihoods that are based on the species and habitats in our coastal systems," says Green, who joined the Faculty of Science in 2018. "Who is going to be affected? What does that mean for how they will make a living in the future and for their cultural identity? What can we do to conserve or restore the environments on which they depend?"

The topic of sustainability in ocean environments poses many complex and far-reaching questions. In order to begin answering them, Green's lab at the University of Alberta is focused on three major streams of research: biological invasion, climate change, and oceanic restoration.

An oceanographer in Alberta?

When asked what she's doing studying coastal ecosystems from landlocked Alberta, Green laughs. "Well, for starters, the oceans have global importance. They're over 70 per cent of our planet and produce more than half of the oxygen that we breathe. Billions of people get their proteins from them, and most of our goods are transported across them. It's kind of a global issue. What we do here in Alberta certainly affects what happens out at the coast in terms of regulating climate."

Combating environmental invaders

When it comes to managing invasive species, many hands (or in some cases, mouths), make light work. "Typically, we look at ways to harvest, suppress, and limit invasive species once they are established. Better yet, how can we use public engagement to address this problem?" asks Green.

The case of invasive lionfish in Florida is the perfect example. A beautiful, aquarium-trade species, lionfish have spread throughout the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, outcompeting other predators and consuming major food sources in their new environments. They also just so happen to taste delicious to humans.

The obvious solution? Eat them.

Partnering with social scientists as well as industry, Green led research on the effects of volunteer fishing derbies, which ended up being a powerful tool for managing lionfish and protecting native fish populations. "It's like pulling weeds from your garden. You want to keep levels low, even though you know that you probably won't completely eradicate them," says Green. "Solutions need to be ecologically sustainable as well as socially sustainable in order to create a management system that will last." Green's experience conducting collaborative research with scientists and resource managers around the Caribbean Basin allows her to directly share the products from her research-such as predictive models that identify where native species are most vulnerable to invasions-in order to help governments effectively target interventions.

Shifting waters

As climate change continues to affect oceans, marine creatures are beginning to move northward in search of cooler waters, bringing with them a whole host of questions for fisheries and industry-as fish don't tend to respect national and international borders.

This reality led Green to develop a large, collaborative project that spans the west coast of North America, including partnerships with federal governments in both Canada and the United States as well as Stanford University. Green recently received a major grant from the Lenfest Ocean Program to support the research.

"The thing we know for certain is that climate change is happening and will continue to make ocean conditions more extreme and variable in decades to come," says Green. "Species are already shifting their ranges as a result, but the rate and extent of change differs between species. This means we'll see new communities of species form as climatic conditions continue to shift. We want to model where species will move as ocean temperatures change."

Currently, the group is examining albacore tuna as a case study for building a model that will help to predict where, when, and how species will move using what we already know about their traits. Using huge data sets from federal and regional governments, Green and her research team are conducting intensive computer simulation modelling.

"Linking these data sets and analyses together is both challenging and critically important," explains Green. "The expertise in machine learning and high-performance computing on the University of Alberta campus is going to be a huge asset for us as we move through these massive data sets. I'm really excited about the opportunities."

The models will aim to predict not only where different species might move, but also what they'll eat, or be eaten by, when they get to their new destination. The more the researchers can learn about the traits of different species, such as tuna, the better they'll be able to predict how their behaviour might shift as a result of a changing climate.

Informing intelligent design

The third focus in Green's lab is remediation-with a specific focus on coral reefs.

"Replanting coral is something managers are thinking about to try to give coral populations a jump-start," explains Green. "We're working to figure out how best to design these efforts. In particular, where and when replanting is most helpful, and how best to design the placement of corals to boost population recovery while simultaneously providing the critical habitat many species that inhabit reefs depend on."

Noelle Helder, a graduate student in Green's lab, is using a technique called structure from motion photogrammetry to stitch together 3D models of reefs for the purpose of understanding how corals create foundational habitat for other species, such as fish and algae. Graduate student Aneri Garg is developing a novel method for creating artificial corals that mimic the structure of live coral colonies, involving 3D scanning, printing, and moulding museum specimens, and then creating casts from a range of alternative materials. The research will help scientists to understand how fishes perceive the chemical cues given off by live coral, compared with other types of surfaces, in choosing among habitats. Both projects will help to reveal how restoration can be designed to best support the replenishment of reef communities.

"How important is the density of live coral tissue to fishes that colonize reef environments?" Green asks. "Once the models are created, we'll distribute them in different densities of live and artificial coral and track differences in the fish communities that choose to live there to find out."

Under the sea

Studying the ocean requires a dynamic, multi-tooled approach. Green's robust research program, guided by its inquisitive and focused leader, aims to bridge the gap between climate change science and remediation efforts. An interdisciplinary approach to marine science makes Green's lab both relevant and practical, guided by curiosity as much as it is by pragmatism. She and her fellow scientists are working to ensure there remains plenty of fish in the sea for future generations.

Sloan, meet Stephanie

In February 2019, Stephanie Green's passion for making things right in marine ecosystems caught the attention of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Nominated by her peers and chosen by a distinguished panel of scholars, Green is the University of Alberta's newest Sloan Fellow.

Since the first Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded in 1955, four faculty from University of Alberta, all in the Faculty of Science, have received Sloan Fellowships. The first was awarded in 1965 to William Ayer (chemistry). The second and third were awarded in 2013 to John Davis (physics) and Julianne Gibbs (chemistry).