Heather Bracken-Grissom, Part 2: Charting and Protecting Ocean Life

Category: General Article

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If you ask Heather Bracken-Grissom what aspects of her career have made her most proud, she will point to her involvement in the Assembling the Tree of Life project (AToL)

The AToL is a global research project with the objective to resolve the evolutionary history of all living and extinct organisms over the history of life on Earth. Needless to say, this is an almost unimaginably large project and requires the collaboration of biologists and nature enthusiasts from all over the world. Accompanying these projects is a web-based database called The Decapoda Tree of Life that offers information about biodiversity, organism characteristics and evolutionary history. The project is free and obtainable on the internet, allowing scientists, educators, students and the general public unrestricted access to present information about every species and significant group of organisms on the planet.

The research being done in Heather’s lab is helping chart the evolutionary relationships of decapod crustaceans like shrimp, crabs and lobsters.

“Once you establish the evolutionary history of an organism, you can use that information to study how organisms adapted to their environment and predict how they may respond to current conditions in the oceans,” said Heather. “Of course this would be very valuable in understanding a species’ ecological needs, too.”

One of the biggest ecological challenges facing decapod crustaceans is ocean acidification, which Heather describes as “climate change’s equally evil twin.”

“People tend to hear less about this but what it describes is how a lot of the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is being absorbed by the oceans,” explained Heather. “Up to one fourth of all carbon dioxide from fossil fuels ends up dissolved in the oceans and this causes a chemical reaction which makes the water more acidic. The increased acidity then prevents organisms like decapods, corals and mollusks from properly forming their shells, which they need to survive. Unfortunately, this is not something these animals can just adapt to. If they cannot form shells properly, they die.”

Heather sees part of her responsibility as a scientist is to educate others about issues like ocean acidification and get them to become part of the solution.

“People have the ability to adapt our behavior to different information and circumstances. We can all do very simple things to help crustaceans and other marine life with the challenges of climate change and ocean acidification,” she said. “Some simple things we can do are use our cars less by walking or using public transportation. You can also easily minimize our energy use. Sometimes that’s as easy as just turning off lights and buying more efficient appliances.

“The Earth has a natural ability to survive in its natural state,” Heather said. “Our challenge is to learn how to live in balance with it.”

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About The S.T.E.A.M. Powered Program

This multi-part series features five women who are at the tops of their fields in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. Over the 2015-16 school year, one week will be dedicated to each person, highlighting their education, careers and innovative contributions to their various disciplines — including the discovery of new species, the exploration of hostile ecosystems and the conservation of marine species.