Scientist interview: meet Ashley Rossin

Ashley and student Alyx Gough test out their pore water sampling protocol at the Kasistna Bay Laboratory beach using a “clam gun”.

Ashley Rossin is a PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks studying the effect of ocean acidification on bivalves with Dr. Amanda Kelley.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got interested in ocean acidification.

I was always interested in science as a kid, and I was constantly asking questions. When I was 14 I went SCUBA diving for the first time, and I was amazed at the colors and the life that lived just below the surface. In the midst of that, I saw a stark white coral head, and didn’t understand why it was white. When we surfaced, I asked the dive master about it, and he explained coral bleaching, and how it was happening more and more often due to the increase in temperature. I started looking into it more, and learned that tropical corals bleach due to their symbiotic algae leaving during stress, but there was a type of coral that didn’t have that algae. I wondered what was going to happen to them with climate change. From there I found a researcher at UMaine who studied human impacts on cold-water corals. I did my undergrad and masters with her.

When she described the masters project to me for the first time, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. After my masters work, I still had so many questions about the whole process of OA on cold-water calcifiers. I wanted to continue my education, and I wanted to continue asking questions about OA. Then I found Amanda Kelley, and luckily, she found my curiosity endearing, and here we are!

Q: I understand you’re working on a clam project. Could you tell us more?

Clams throughout Alaska are incredibly important as both a commercial use, but they are of traditional significance as well. Throughout the state of Alaska, clam populations have been in decline for over 20 years, and we aren’t really sure why. This will soon be coupled with increasing effects from climate change, both in temperature and ocean acidification. We also know that larvae and juveniles are especially susceptible to these effects, which can have negative implications for future populations.

We ran a 24-day experiment on two different clam species (the basket cockle and littleneck clam) to study their responses to OA. We had two treatments: the current or ambient pH (7.97 pH units) and predicted pH for 2100 in the region (7.67 pH units). We collected at multiple different time points because cells respond to stress in a fast response and slow response, and we wanted to capture it all. We are analyzing the cellular response through quantitative polymerase chain reactions (qPCR). This allows us to see the “real-time” expression of response proteins through the expression of RNA. To help you picture it, imagine you walk outside in Alaska in the winter, your body immediately tenses, and shivers. The cells in your body are experiencing a stress acting on them, and immediately respond to conserve body heat. This is possible by the RNA sequences for shivering and curling up increasing their expression in response to the stress. However, over time, your body would likely acclimate, and some of those initial responders wouldn’t be necessary anymore. That’s essentially what we are looking at with qPCR on the stress response of these clams.

We are also using a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to study the surface topography of the shells to see if we see any signs of dissolution. Dissolution can occur when the water is undersaturated with respect to aragonite, which means the carbonate that the shells are composed of, are not readily available. This can cause the shell to dissolve.

Another aspect that can change for clams, is the composition of their shell. Other mollusks have been seen to switch from shells primarily composed of calcium carbonate, to be composed of magnesium calcite or introduce strontium as well. To study this, we are using laser ablation inductively coupled mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) which shoots a laser at a shell, and the beam that comes off of the shell can tell a computer the element concentration from where the laser hit.

What do we know so far about clam response to OA?

From the scientific literature, we know that clams’ responses to OA is highly variable. From what we know from other species, we were able to come up with our methods of analysis, since this is the first study on either of my species. From my data personally, you’ll have to wait and hear my talk at AMSS! I’ve attached two photos of shell topography as a sort of spoiler. The left shell is the ambient treatment, and right shell refers to the 2100 pH. Anything that looks spongy or pitting is the shell dissolving…

Q: How has the citizen science element of your project been going?

We just launched the program and are looking for participants in all part of the state! The protocol is fairly straight forward – we want people to mark the clams they see anywhere along our expansive coast. Even if you aren’t comfortable identifying the species, you can still contribute. The goal is to do our best to document clam distribution, and we are encouraging people who are beach walking or clamming to open up Epicollect5 and search for “Clam Survey” and put in any species they are seeing. The app is really easy to use, and when you elect to “add a data point” it leads you through all of the questions, none of them are required to answer, but any information you can give is really helpful. In order to increase our internet presence, we created a Facebook page (Alaska Clam Survey) where we hope will help us engage with everyone a little more. It’s tricky to get people out in the mudflats in the middle of winter, but we have a lot of positive responses to our page and project, so we’re really excited for spring and summer! You can find more info on the project website.

Q: Is there a certain part of the state where you’re looking to get more coverage? If someone wanted to participate, how could they get involved?

I don’t know if there’s a particular region I’d like more coverage for compared to others, but I do hope to get some points from the northern coast, I’d really like to know what’s going on with their shellfish up there! To participate, you can download the epicollect5 app, it’s free to both android and iphone users. From there you’ll need to create an account, then you can search for “Clam Survey” and you’ll see us! Whenever any user is out on a beach, we hope that they remember the app and project, and start digging around for clams! We hope people attach photos to their posts, and just get excited about what they’re seeing. If they have any questions, they can message the facebook page or just email me directly. If anyone wants to check the progress of the points on the map, they can go to the LEO Network site and search clam survey to see the map coming together!

I know that’s kind of specific to people with access to the coast, so for anyone without direct access to water, I’d just ask that they share the project with anyone who is, and keep the project in mind for if they take a vacation. A big part of how we respond to OA will be how informed the public is, and we already know Alaskans are aware of the problems and are willing to help, we want to continue to share our research and findings, so they can be as informed as possible. The work I do in the lab doesn’t mean much if we can’t connect it back to the people who I’m doing it for.

Q: Can you tell us about a memorable moment in the lab or in the field?

This past finals week we went down to Kasitsna Bay Labs to do maintenance on the oceanographic sensors we have as well as to do my first round of water collections for my project. To collect the water, it has to be dead low tide, which meant going out at 1 and 2 am two nights in a row and running a 100ft line across the beach at the water line to collect samples. It was myself and an undergrad, Alyx Gough, and the first night we went out, it was absolutely dumping snow.

We trudged through the foot or so of snow that had fallen that night, and out to the low tide line with our headlamps on, full snow suits and foot and hand warmers, and took 40 water samples. It was so cold, and the vials were so small we had to keep taking off a glove to get traction, but it was so fun and a really great way to start my fieldwork!

Q: Any advice for a grad student entering the field of ocean acidification?

Reading about OA day in and day out can get really depressing. It seems like even when a species has no response in one aspect of their life, another aspect is slowed or shut down. It can be hard to take. But it’s also amazing that every single day new papers are coming out on various species or regions and their response to OA. How cool is that? OA is a big problem and it’ll be challenging to fix, but so many people care about it. There are tons of researchers looking into this, so we’re ready for what’s to come. And it’s amazing to be a part of it.
Also, pay attention during your chemical oceanography classes, and thank me later.

Alaska Ocean Acidification Network, Article.

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