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Science students doing field research

Researching intertidal communities ecosystems: Ecology fellowship supports student fieldwork

By Danielle Timm
Lily Miksell and Roy Anderson, SURE Scholarship recipient, during a field research trip.

For Lily Miksell, the Alexei Lubchenco Menge Undergraduate Research Fellowship presented an exciting opportunity to pursue her interests in ecology and conservation, despite constraints caused by COVID-19. This fellowship awarded by the Department of Integrative Biology supports one biology or zoology undergraduate’s ecological field research each summer with a $5,500 stipend and $500 research award. Lily Miksell was the 2020 fellowship recipient and the second recipient of the award since it’s 2019 inception.

Prior to attending Oregon State and getting involved in marine research, Miksell worked in healthcare for seven years. She trained in phlebotomy, eventually taking a job in pathology that brought her to Portland, Oregon. Although Miksell says she never thought of herself as an academic person, her lab experience from working in pathology helped hone her interests in biology. She also credits her dogs with sparking her deep interest in animals – an interest she has been able to pursue in her time at OSU.

“Whatever I end up doing, I just know I want to help animals – whether it’s preserving their natural habitat or studying marine disease and how we can help address those,” she said.

Miksell began doing research through the URSA Engage program prior to being awarded the fellowship. Through the URSA program, she worked in the Menge lab with postdoctoral scholar Sara Gravem. Miksell helped kickstart the PRIMED Network during her time working with Gravem. The PRIMED network stands for “Primary Responders in Marine Emergent Diseases and is composed of a group of experts in marine science committed to addressing marine disease outbreaks.” Miksell assisted the researchers by consolidating data, setting up online workshops, and creating a website and iNaturalist project, which aims to detect and track disease outbreaks in marine wildlife species, to encourage more people to become involved in community science.

mugshot of  Lily Miksell
Lily Miksell, the 2020 Alexei Lubchenco Menge Undergraduate Research Fellow. The fellowship, started in 2019 and awarded by the Department of Integrative Biology, supports one biology or zoology undergraduate’s ecological field research each summer.

The fellowship also enabled Miksell to focus on another marine biology topic on the Oregon Coast over the summer – conducting an experiment with Integrative Biology Ph.D. student Zech Meunier that focused on the coexistence of mussels and surfgrass.

Mussels and surfgrass are foundation species in rocky intertidal communities that provide habitats for numerous other species. Recent observations have shown that mussels are able to invade and replace surfgrass, but the reasons behind this had not been studied before. “Surfgrass may protect mussels from predation by giving them somewhere to hide … but mussels may inhibit surfgrasses by reducing growth and damaging their leaves,” Miksell said.

“Whatever I end up doing, I just know I want to help animals – whether it’s preserving their natural habitat or studying marine disease and how we can help address those.”

She was particularly interested in the interaction between mussels and surfgrass and how sea star predator density affected the organisms’ interactions. She hypothesized that mussels would be negatively affected by surfgrass, but this would depend on the density of Pisaster (a sea star species) across sites.

Working with Meunier, Miskell conducted a “mussel transplant experiment” setting up 70 different plots at seven sites along the coast. Some plots contained only surfgrass or only mussels, while others included both organisms. They then surveyed each of the plots three times and recorded the number of alive and dead mussels, the cause of mussel mortality, and the density of Pisaster per square meter. This allowed them to better understand how the two species coexist.

Lily Miksell doing field research
Lily Miksell conducting research in the intertidal zones along the Oregon Coast. Her research is focused on the coexistence of mussels and surfgrass.

Their findings suggest that “mussels generally do better outside of surfgrass beds, with the exception of one site.” Pisaster were present in large numbers at the outlier site, leading Miksell and Meunier to believe that surfgrass provides mussels with associational defense when predator density is high. In other words, surfgrass provides mussels with some protection from sea stars, especially when the sea stars are present in high numbers.

Although COVID-19 caused some restrictions on the research - such as Miksell and Meunier needing to find a vehicle large enough to sit 6 feet apart while driving out to the coast - Miksell shared that she’s extremely happy with the research experience.

“I’m really grateful to Sally and Zech. They were really committed to giving me a fulfilling research experience during the pandemic. They set me up with everything I needed to do lab work at home, and they made sure I got the field experience I was looking forward to in addition to making me feel welcome in OSU’s scientific and research community,” she said.

Overall, Miksell has dedicated approximately 500 hours to this specific research, and she is excited to continue her research during the remainder of her time at Oregon State. Following her summer research, she was offered a position in ecologist Sally Hacker’s lab to continue working on this research with Meunier. She is already looking ahead to next summer when they will focus more on the predator density of Pisaster and how manipulating that variable will affect mussel mortality.”

Reflecting on her upcoming graduation, Miksell shared some career development words of advice she learned in the College of Science: “[Preparing for your career] is not like a ladder; it’s like climbing a lattice. You might go to the right or the left. It’s not a linear path to some career you think you’re going to get.”

The fellowship is possible thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor and the friends and family of Alexei Lubchenco Menge, the son of Distinguished Professors of Integrative Biology Bruce Menge and Jane Lubchenco. Alexei died at age 27 in 2006. A natural athlete, artist and charismatic leader, he loved field biology and being in, on or near the water. He was fortunate to assist with marine research in the Bahamas, Baja California, Oregon, New Zealand, Arizona and beyond in a life cut short too soon.