Researcher in focus: Dr Ceri Lewis
Dr Ceri Lewis is a lecturer in Marine Biology for the College of Life and Environmental Science. She spoke to Lara Cronin about her research into Ocean Acidification, the importance of educational outreach and why she loves the polar regions.
Can you tell me about what inspired your interest in Marine Biology?
I think I probably just spent too many summer holidays in rock pools on the beautiful beaches of Pembrokeshire.
The variety and strangeness of little creatures you can find in a rock pool and their adaptations to each different niche fascinated me from a very young age. I still love rock pooling.
You’re currently working on the NERC UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme; can you tell me a bit more about what you’re looking at and why it’s so important to marine ecology and ecology as a whole?
Ocean acidification (OA) is widely considered to be one of the biggest future threats to global marine biodiversity and may negatively impact the health and reproductive capabilities of a wide range of marine species.
It is caused by increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in a similar way to climate change, hence it’s often called climate changes’ ‘evil twin’.
The ocean has a carbonate buffering system which has kept the pH (acidity) of seawater stable of millions of years, but the rate at which carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere and hence oceans is now overwhelming this buffering and as a result the pH of the ocean is falling at a rate unprecedented in history.
My role in the UK-OA programme is to look at how ocean acidification will affect reproduction in a number of commercially important shellfish species. These species reproduce by broadcast spawning their eggs and sperm into the ocean where fertilisation takes place externally.
The resulting embryos then develop into small swimming larvae; these tiny larvae are very sensitive to any changes in ocean conditions, and so we have been looking at how ocean acidification will affect their growth and survival to try and understand ultimately how many of them will make it to the adult stage in a future ocean.
This has obvious implications for population size of these species, which are becoming increasingly important as a source of protein for human consumption.
You’re very involved in public and educational outreach; can you tell me the sort of outreach work you’re involved in why this is important?
During the course of my research career I have become acutely aware at the general lack of understanding of marine issues amongst the general public.
As someone who is passionate about the marine environment this troubles me greatly, and so I have been working with an educational charity with the aim of passing on some of my knowledge and passion about the oceans and marine animals to the next generation.
Following my research expedition to the Arctic as part of the Catlin Arctic Surveys, to look at ocean acidification under the sea ice, I teamed up with Digital Explorer, a non-profit organisation which pioneers educational expeditions to provide free inspirational lesson plans to schools.
The aim was to raise awareness of OA and Arctic climate change as global issues to the scientists of tomorrow. The resulting ‘DE Oceans’ Programme produced a highly professional set of education resources.
Since their launch in 2011, these ‘Frozen Oceans’ resources have now been used in 874 schools or related organisations, representing 22 per cent of all UK secondary schools.
The Frozen Oceans resources are also being used in over 1,000 schools internationally and recently won a prestigious ‘Silver award’ for best teaching resources from the Geographical Association in 2013 and were finalists at the national Education Resource Awards 2012.
I’m also going to part of a new project run by Skype where classrooms around the world can join me or other scientists for a Skype chat about our research and learn about ocean acidification or other marine issues.
I think the opportunity for school children to learn from real scientists is a really exciting way of enthusing the next generation of scientists and increasing public awareness of some really important issues. It’s also hugely rewarding for me on a personal level.
You’ve had the opportunity to conduct research in a number of locations; if you could visit anywhere to study the marine ecosystem, where would you go?
I’d love to go and work in Antarctica. I loved working in the Arctic, the polar regions are stunningly beautiful, but I’ve never been down south.
The marine life in the Southern ocean looks incredible and it would be amazing to be able to go and do some research down there. Not sure I’d want to over winter there though, that looks really tough, so maybe a summer trip.
What are your plans for future research projects?
I’m now starting to look at how ocean acidification might alter the way in which marine pollutants behave in seawater and cause toxicity to marine animals.
Coastal pollution is very common around the UK and so understanding how these pollutants will act in a future ocean of lower pH is really important.
Our understanding of this is in its every early stages and so I aim to build on these preliminary findings and get a much better understanding of this potential for ocean acidification and pollution to interact.