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Water Today Title December 6, 2019

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UBC INDIGENOUS STUDENT IN OCEANOGRAPHY RESEARCHES A SPECIES THAT HAS BEEN SWIMMING THE OCEANS FOR 650 MILLION YEARS



By Suzanne Forcese

At the age of 23, Jessica Schaub, UBC Master of Science Student in the Pelagic Ecosystems Lab, is living her passions of a longstanding relationship with the ocean; of being a scientist in an emerging field; and celebrating her Metis heritage in her numerous outreach activities.

“I was always drawn to the ocean,” Schaub told WaterToday in an inspiring telephone interview, “even though I grew up on the prairies in Cold Lake, Alberta.” Schaub who was raised by her single father, also knew as far back as she can remember, “I always wanted to be a scientist.”

Jessica Schaub Photo Courtesy Lauren Portner

“I was intrigued by charismatic creatures like turtles and sharks but it wasn’t until grade 12 when I learned about the jelly fish tragedy in Japan that jelly fish began to interest me.” Thought to be the result of rising temperatures caused by climate change, Japan was invaded by thousands of giant jellyfish off Japan’s west coast. They became tangled in fishing nets, stifled the fishing industry, and capsized a fishing trawler, in 2009.

Her jelly fish affair resurged when Schaub was volunteering at an aquarium in her first year of university. “The more you study them the more you realize they are way more interesting than anybody thought.”

Called Medusa because of their resemblance to the evil Medusa in Greek mythology – a woman who changed her hair into snakes, making herself so hideous that people looking at her were turned to stone – jelly fish have a lifespan of one year(although the polyps can live for many years) and yet their existence pre-dates dinosaurs.

Jelly fish don’t have a brain, heart, bones or eyes. They are made up of a smooth bag-like body and tentacles armed with tiny, stinging cells to stun or paralyze their prey before taking them into the small opening in the centre of their body that serves as a mouth, as a means of expelling waste, and also as mechanism to propel their bodies forward. They do have a rudimentary nervous system. It’s actually a loose network of nerves located in the epidermis called a “nerve net”. Their gelatinous bodies are so thin that they can be oxygenated by diffusion.

“They have a very simple body plan,” Schaub told WT, “only what they need.” They can survive with low oxygen levels and in very cold water. “Simplicity helps them be strong and compete. Perhaps that is why they have survived for over 650 million years.” Even though they are heartless they come in both genders with a very efficient sex life. “There is an amazing synchronicity,” Schaub says. As all the male jelly fish release clouds of sperm the females do their part. “Most species actually have a female ‘brooding’ behavior where the females swim through the cloud and take it in to fertilize their eggs.” The larvae then settle on the bottom of the ocean and morph into polyps which in turn divide asexually. “One tiny polyp can make 10 jellyfish.”

Schaub adds that the polyps have become a synanthropic (benefitting from human activity) species. “They adhere to substrates like plastic, wooden docks, any hard surface. It’s part of the reason we are seeing more jellyfish.” Jellyfish blooms (the name for a group of jellyfish) are becoming more widespread and scientists are looking for ways to understand them better, including their impact on species like salmon and herring that compete with them for food sources.

In her undergraduate work, supervised by Dr. Brian Hunt, at the Hakai Institute, research was conducted with drones to map the extent and behavior of jellyfish aggregations which allowed them to discover how jellyfish clusters move and how they use ocean currents to stay together. With the oceans warming due to climate change, it has been noticed that jellyfish could be starting to proliferate earlier in the season which affects the herring spawning in spring. One BC study reported up to 95% of herring larvae were eaten by jellyfish.

Schaub and Hunt were able to estimate the total mass of jellyfish aggregations in the area – 60-120 tonnes. This provided a starting point for further studies on jellyfish energy demands and their effect on the local food web. Although jellyfish are not exactly a hot topic in the science community, Schaub believes that by studying them we can understand the impact these blooms have on the ecosystem. “Jellyfish tend to be indicative of bigger problems, yet we don’t know much about them. They are a natural part of a healthy ecosystem and have been around for millions of years though humans have only been observing them for a fraction of that time. We are starting to see them in areas we haven’t seen them before. These little-understood creatures may hold the key to helping us understand how climate change – and the human actions that cause it – are affecting the oceans.” Because jellyfish have specific temperature ranges that they can survive in, depending on the species, warm water can bring in new, warm-water species to new areas and remove the food other fish would eat.

For her Masters’ thesis Schaub is starting small to build foundational knowledge by focusing on the diet of moon jellyfish which are the main bloom forming species in B.C. “Instead of looking at it from a traditional way of measuring diet, by catching jellyfish and seeing what’s in their stomach, we started to look at molecular techniques – more advanced ways of picking up their diet more accurately.” Schaub works in partnership with the Hakai Institute, doing her research on Quadra Island, in the northern Strait of Georgia. The jellyfish are caught in nets. Larvae which are tucked within their tentacles are extracted and then brought back to the lab where they grow into polyps.

“I am hoping to do some genetic work by looking at what they are eating and also what the microbiome is made of – what bacteria are living with them. Learning that could answer other questions like what causes enormous blooms. The nice thing about jellyfish research is that there are jellyfish all over the world. And the community of jellyfish researchers is very small so any research that you do here is relevant in places like Europe and Australia I hope that even answering these basic questions will help contribute to bigger Science.”

Part of the bigger Science picture involves the role of jellyfish in climate change. The ocean has a vast impact on humanity. Conversely, our actions have a vast impact on the ocean. “Although the research is still not conclusive we do know that jellyfish play a part in the carbon cycle. The oceans are the main buffer for carbon dioxide as it is drawn down deep. Jellyfish are good at drawing down carbon dioxide to the bottom of the ocean. And when the jellyfish come to the end of their life cycle in a year’s time they simply disintegrate and the carbon dioxide is then buried at the ocean’s bottom.”

“Because of UBC’s coastal location we are ideally situated to do fieldwork in the ocean. Even when I’m not in the field I’m at the ocean it’s still a part of my life because of where the campus is situated.” An equally big part of Schaub’s life is her third passion. “When I am not in the field or the lab I am cultivating a love of science with Indigenous students.” Preparing the way for the next generation of science ambassadors Schaub is active in many organizations. “I was the graduate representative on the hiring committee for AFRU, the Aboriginal Fisheries Research Unit, a new research unit in our department.” She is also the co-president of AIES, American Indian Science and Engineering Society (the Canadian version is caISES –Canadian Indigenous Science and Engineering Society). “UBC now has an active chapter.”

Schaub receives funding from NSERC ISA to travel to rural communities and run workshops with students. http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/students-etudiants/aboriginal-autochtones_eng.asp

She is also a tele-monitor with the Future Pathways program with Connected North. “I also receive funding for my travels to give high-school students a point of contact over tele-communication to help them navigate the university application process.”

What’s next for Jessica Schaub? “I’d like to complete my PhD work in jellyfish research. If we can understand more about jellyfish and how they affect people then perhaps we can answer questions that are beneficial to us all. Maybe we could prevent future tragedies like the one in Japan.”

Or maybe…we could mitigate climate change.

suzanne.f@watertoday.ca





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