by Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
The border between the ocean and dry land is a tough neighborhood. Residents of the intertidal zone—tidepool animals such as mussels and limpets, snails and barnacles—are alternately battered by waves, then exposed to drying sun.
Climate change has made life on the rocks even harder. Heat waves are killing some animals outright and driving species toward more temperate climes. What’s less clear is how this hotter reality impacts different life stages of these organisms (eggs, embryos, larvae, and adults).
To find out, Heidi Waite is studying two predatory snails, Mexacanthina lugubris and Acanthinucella spirata, found in the intertidal zone. “I’m very interested what kind of mechanisms they have across their different life stages to deal with temperature or climate change,” the UC Irvine graduate student says. “Does experiencing higher temperatures when they’re younger make them more vulnerable? Does it somehow help them become more resistant?”
Making research possible
This fall, the UC Natural Reserve System awarded Waite a 2021–22 Mildred E. Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant to pursue this research on the carryover effect of temperature. The $3,000 grant will enable her to sample snail eggs from nearby Scripps Coastal Reserve, and add a second arm to the project: documenting the northward range expansion and egg laying microhabitats of both species.
“This is my main funding for the project, so I definitely would not have been able to do it otherwise—especially the surveys up north,” Waite says.
The grant will also allow Waite to bring two undergraduate field assistants to help. Both belong to minority groups underrepresented in the field sciences. “One of my passions is helping mentor and increase diversity in STEM. I’m super excited for them, and they’re also excited now that we got this funding to give them experience, too.”
A longstanding boon to graduate students
Waite is one of 14 University of California graduate students from six different UC campuses who received 2021–22 Mathias Grants. Each will receive up to $3,000 to defray the costs of transportation, research equipment, and accommodations at one or more of the NRS’s 41 reserves.
The majority of this year’s recipients plan to pursue projects in ecology. For example, Rebecca Nelson of UC Davis will research how invasive grasses are affecting native plant-pollinator relationships at McLaughlin Natural Reserve, while Maxi Navarette of UC Santa Barbara will visit Sedgwick Reserve to examine how microbes synthesize enzymes to break down surrounding soil components.
Diverse projects from students across the University
The two students pursuing earth science projects are both working with UC Santa Cruz professor Margaret Zimmer at Blue Oak Ranch Reserve’s Arbor Creek Watershed. Nerissa Barling will evaluate how earthquake faulting affects the groundwater available to plants, and Lauren Giggy will investigate how the geology underlying streams alters the flow of water and nutrients following fire.
Nearly half of the awardees plan to utilize multiple reserves in their research. Sampling several sites enables the study of climatic gradients, differences in populations, or the effects of ecosystem types. For example, Maggie Grundler of UC Berkeley will use genomic tools to examine the dietary preferences of garter snakes at Angelo Coast Range Reserve, Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, Hastings Natural History Reservation, Point Reyes Field Station, and Sagehen Creek Field Station, and Tracie Hayes of UC Davis will study how the fleeting availability of food patches affect reproduction among insect pollinators at Angelo, Blue Oak, Bodega, and Hastings. The project involving the most reserves—a whopping 28—was proposed by Alberto Barron Sandoval of UC Irvine, who will correlate how microbial traits and soil ecosystem functioning are responding to climate change.
The $38,000 awarded this year comes from the Kenneth S. Norris Endowment Fund for the California Environment, provided to the NRS by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Since its establishment in 1988, the Mathias Grant program has awarded a total of $982,444 to 516 students. A table of all Mathias grant recipients and their projects to date is available on the NRS website.
Boosting careers in science
In addition to supporting researchers early in their careers, the Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant program gives students valuable experience as professional scientists. Students learn how to apply for and manage a research grant, and report on their progress to a funder. The program also encourages the establishment of years-long-studies on reserves.
A Mathias Grant award can also help students secure additional funding for their projects. Receiving a grant signals to other funders that the project is worthy of support. Surveys of previous recipients indicate early career funding from a Mathias Grant has been pivotal to their professional success.
The Mathias Grant competition is open to UC graduate students who submit a proposal for research to be conducted at one or more NRS reserves. Students from all disciplines are encouraged to apply. Students at an early stage of their careers and in underrepresented fields of study receive preference.
All award recipients will be invited to present their findings at the Mildred E. Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant Symposium. The symposium enables students to grow their scientific community, interact with leading field researchers, and discuss career options. The next symposium is likely to be held in 2023 if pandemic conditions permit.