By Chris Patrick, staff writer
Tropical, reef-building corals are rainbow bright. The corals growing in the Atlantic Ocean off Virginia’s coast are more drab. The Northern star coral, for example, looks like a pocked grey rock. But Hannah Aichelman loves them all the same.
“I’m fascinated by corals,” Aichelman says. When she first started learning about the effect of climate change on coral reefs, like coral bleaching, she wanted to save them.
“I realized that my research could have a hand in creating policy that protects the species that need protecting,” she says.
Coral bleaching occurs when warm temperatures, or other stressors, cause microscopic algae that live inside coral tissue to vacate. Without these algae, coral loses a major source of food, turns ghostly white, and is more susceptible to disease.
As a Virginia Sea Grant graduate research fellow at Old Dominion University, Aichelman will spend the next two years studying how the northern star coral could respond to climate change—helping determine if it’s one of the coral species that needs protecting.
Her project stems from research she did as an undergraduate student, and then lab manager, in the coral ecophysiology lab at the University of Nor
th Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. There, she grew a species of coral collected off the coast of North Carolina in two temperatures—one matching today’s temperature and one simulating higher temperatures associated with climate change.
She found that the warmer temperature caused the corals to bleach—unless she fed them plankton, another source of food for corals. Corals fed more plankton were able to recover, regaining their algae and continuing to grow. Aichelman termed this phenomenon the rescue effect.
Her work suggests that plankton is an important food source for corals experiencing higher temperatures. But some scientists think that climate change will crash plankton populations.
“If that’s the case, with what I found, we could see the temperate corals off the coast of North Carolina or Virginia have a harder time dealing with future temperature increases associated with climate change,” Aichelman says. Corals in high temperatures without enough plankton might not recover after bleaching, and could eventually die.
She’ll continue to study the rescue effect in Virginia’s northern star coral, growing coral from six different sites in different temperatures with different amounts of food. She aims to understand the molecular mechanisms of the rescue effect by looking at the corals’ energy reserves and DNA.
To share her research with others, she’ll partner with the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach. She will work with middle-school students in the aquarium’s Mentoring Young Scientists program.
“I’m really excited to talk with the students about what I do and encourage them to pursue careers in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] fields,” says Aichelman. She’d also like to create mobile aquarium exhibits so that Virginians can learn about local corals.
Aichelman will begin a master’s program in biology at ODU this fall. She earned her bachelor’s degree from UNC Chapel Hill in 2014, majoring in environmental science and double-minoring in marine science and chemistry. She’s from Huntersville, NC.