The Coral Microbiome: An Interview With Nicole Miller
BY STEPHANIE MACDONALD
The coral microbiome is still little understood. Nicole’s research aims to help us understand if we can utilize the coral microbiome to protect species from global and local stressors. Nicole also shares her advice for early career scientists and plans for the future.
Hey Nicole, Thanks for chatting with us, please tell us a little about yourself?
I’m a graduate research assistant from the University of Florida (UoF). I study corals, in particular Acropora cervicornis (staghorn coral) and the bacteria that resides on them. I would consider myself a naturalist, I’m always in the ocean swimming, surfing, kayaking and scuba diving. When I’m not in the water I’m usually hiking, bike riding and just enjoying being outside.
Could you tell us a little about your research on the coral microbiome? You had some pretty cool results.
I study Acropora cervicornis. In the past 40 years we have lost up to 95% of populations throughout the Caribbean. One of the main causes of this loss has been due to bacterial diseases. The main aspect of my research was studying the bacterial components of a healthy staghorn coral. I found that there were differences in bacterial communities between different genotypes and that these differences are significant. This suggests some corals might react differently to changes in the environment due to their divergent microbiomes. To put this in perspective, we humans have a microbiome in our gut that helps us exchange nutrients, aids in digestion, and contributes to our immunity and overall health. Just as our microbiome helps us, it also helps corals. If we know there are different communities across genotypes we may see corals that are healthier in changing climates and environments compared to others. These bacteria may be playing a specific role and could help us in coral restoration.
You just finished your masters degree, could you tell us what a typical day in the life is for a student at University of Florida?
My research was partially composed of field work; sometimes I was preparing and writing an outline for a dive plan for sampling the corals, other days I was on the boat fulfilling my requirements for scientific scuba diving. Most days I was actually in the lab, putting on my favourite songs and running DNA extractions or prepping my samples for sequencing. Most of my work involved data analysis. My day would always start by washing my hands because I work in a molecular lab!
How do you hope your work will help and influence others that are in your field?
I hope my work will become a cornerstone to future studies looking into the survival and restoration of staghorn coral.
Are you able to tell us a memorable moment in your career so far?
It happened in February 2019, I had the honour of presenting an oral presentation at the annual Association for the Sciences of Limonography and Oceanography conference. It was a gathering involving thousands of researchers and scientists from around the globe. It was really exciting to hear that people were excited and interested in my work! Being a part of that international community of ecologists and coral microbiologists was pretty monumental.
What do you wish you had been taught earlier in your career?
One of the most valuable teachings I have learned in my career came from my Dad. Two quotes come to mind. The first is “Endeavour to persevere”, which to me means it takes strength to fight for the planet. When push comes to shove you have to be the citizen scientist that everybody needs and to influence others in the best way that you can. The second quote is “I’m not smart, I work hard”. For the me the hardest part about grad school is that students may feel intimidated and as though they have to complete a huge list of accomplishments. Such as ‘I have to do this’ and ‘I have to go there’. When in reality anybody can be smart, it is the hard work that takes students places and drives accomplishments in environmentalism.
Who’s work has influenced and inspired you most on your journey?
The work of my Dad has inspired me from a young age. He conducts his own research on the St. Johns River in Florida. In my graduate career, I have been inspired by my chair adviser, Dr. Julie Meyer at the University of Florida. She is amazing, she has been so supportive and encouraged some really solid science projects from students who are just coming out of undergrad. She’s taught me the fundamentals of science and experimental design. Most of all she’s really inspired me to reach for the stars and helped me build confidence in starting my budding career.
What do you hope the future holds for you?
I hope the future holds more time next to the ocean, it’s really as simple as that. I want to influence the world for the better, whether it’s through health oriented genetics or environmental genetics. Ultimately, I hope the future has more waves in store and more adventures.
If there was one message you could get across to the general public, what would it be?
Be the conscious consumer. In this world where there is so much to be jealous of, so much to want and buy. There is clothes, travel and consumerism. Be conscious of what you want and what you need and really think about how the items you are buying are affecting not just us as humans, but the planet.