Fellows Feature: Megan Morikawa

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Megan Morikawa is a postdoctoral scholar at UCSB and a marine researcher with the Iberostar Hotels and Resorts. She is based in the Dominican Republic, working with the private sector to conduct research on coral restoration in the Caribbean. She received her PhD in 2018 at the Palumbi Lab at the Stanford Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey. In her PhD, she conducted research on multi-species coral nurseries see if coral reef restoration can be made ready for climate change using genomic tools to unveil natural diversity in reefs in the Pacific. She also studied the impacts of seasonal shifts in coral transcriptomes on the response during bleaching stress. She was a Robertson Scholar at Duke University before her time at Stanford.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally?

My name is Megan Morikawa, I just graduated from the PhD program at Stanford’s Marine Station in Monterey, and I’m working to understand how coral reefs can survive a changing climate. I’m dedicated to working at the intersection between research (specifically conservation genetics) and application (specifically marine conservation), and am recently excited about the ways private industry and private philanthropic funding can reward risk taking in pursuing research in this intersection.

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Photo courtesy of Megan Morikawa. 

I graduated from Duke University in 2012 with a personalized major titled Conservation Biology and Genetics: Applied Environmental Sciences. I did my PhD on understanding the role variability (across seasons, individuals, and species) played in restoring coral reefs that were more resilient to bleaching events. I’m now living in the Dominican Republic, working with a Hotel called Iberostar and as a postdoc at UCSB to test the feasibility of multi-species, climate resilient coral nurseries in the Caribbean.

How did you end up here? What first got you interested in genetics and science?

My father is an engineer and my mother is an artist. In many ways, I am very much a mixture of the two. I’m passionate about the science that provides a technical solution to a real world problem. I’m also passionate about communicating that research in creative ways and thinking creatively about solutions and applications.

Can you tell us about your current research and what you want to achieve with it? 

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Photo courtesy of Megan Morikawa. 

Coral reefs are facing widespread and recurrent global bleaching. This jeopardizes a critical resource that not only provides astonishing ecosystem services, but makes the world worth protecting. With ocean warming, sea waters can raise by a few degrees, particularly during El Niño years. While a few degrees may not seem like a large perturbation, it can cause the breakdown of symbiosis between animal coral host and algae obligate symbiont, also known as bleaching. The coral expels damaged symbionts, thus revealing the white skeleton beneath their otherwise clear tissue and removing their major food source. This often leads to coral death.

Research on the specific biology of this symbiosis has shown that not all bleaching is the same and that some species and some individuals are more resilient to bleaching than others. My PhD research had three parts: 1) comparing bleaching across species by characterizing shared transcriptomic response to acute heat stress; 2) understanding how variability in thermal tolerance within species could be used to restore reefs more resilient to climate change; and 3) scaling the practice of finding resilient coral to a country scale.

The research has allowed for exciting opportunities to work with management partners in American Samoa and Palau to integrate an understanding of thermal tolerance and reef restoration in their management initiatives. It also led to some great opportunities for outreach to a broader public about why research like this matters to coral reefs (check out the HHMI video with my advisor Steve Palumbi). Finally, it has opened doors to engage with the private sector on ways to integrate conservation initiatives into their business practice, which is a major part of the job I have currently!

Were there people in particular to whom you would attribute your professional success?

I was so fortunate to have a high school mentor who changed my life track forever. Dr. Jay Vavra at High Tech High was the first to introduce me to genetics, started a project to test the feasibility of using DNA as a tool to identify mislabeled wildlife products in the bushmeat trade, which kickstarted my career in conservation genetics. From that point, there were a string of incredible mentors from a diverse set of fields that have brought me to where I am today. Jeanne Kirschner at the Roberstons Scholars Program so strongly believed in my unconventional journey, even when I did not. My undergrad mentor Hunt Willard welcomed and supported my interests even when they were far outside his expertise and taught me that we’re never too old to have mentors. And so many faculty at the Hopkins Marine Station have provided not only the intellectual but emotional support I see as critical to any student’s professional success.

Above all, my advisor, Steve Palumbi, has created a lab space where I could pursue ambitious projects, grow as an investigator, grow as a communicator, and test the waters as a project manager and mentor in the lab and in the field. A relationship with your PhD advisor is a long commitment, so I suggest that you find someone who compliments your own work style (do you like to have lots of freedom? Do you like to have structured deadlines? Do you work best under a bit of pressure?), someone who cares about your wellbeing (because that ultimately benefits their lab and their professional success!), and someone who does not shy away from setbacks (since there will always be challenges in the PhD!).

Can you speak a bit to the role you see CEHG playing on Stanford campus?

Research should not happen in isolation. Yet so often, we struggle to have conversations outside of our field. CEHG allows groups of networks to come together and have a great mix of comfortable conversations and conversations that push us (or at least me!) outside of our comfort zones. As a student at the Hopkins Marine Station, it was one of the only ways that I maintained a steady tie to main campus till the end of my graduate career. For that, I’m thankful for the opportunity to both share research on coral reefs but also gain knowledge about the frontiers of all members of CEHG.

What are your future plans Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years?

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Photo courtesy of Julia Mason. 

I am currently working with the hotel company Iberostar and UCSB to conduct research on multi-species, climate-resilient nurseries in the Caribbean. We are also working on a larger initiative to promote sustainable practices within the company. Follow https://twitter.com/mkmorikawa to learn more about what we’re up to!

What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you? 

In my career, I’ve tried to maintain an applied focus to the research I’ve conducted. I could not encourage you more emphatically to keep pursuing applied research if you are considering the same. It has opened up incredible opportunities to work with different industries, and different perspectives that almost always improve your science (albeit in unexpected ways).

Advice to follow a similar path would be: 1) Work on skills outside of just producing good science, such as communication, managing a budget, mentoring, negotiations, non-traditional media, and more. 2) Expand upon the last paragraph you would write at the end of your discussion. In these sections, we often say “this research could be useful for x, y or z.” I encourage you to think about this at the start of the project, and see if there are easy conversations you can have at the beginning to make real world application more of a possibility from the beginning. 3) Treat every new contact as an exciting opportunity to learn about new fields & new applications (and potentially new collaborators!), particularly if they are outside of academia. Networking is not something that happens one time in a concentrated event. I think it’s best when it is a slow, gradual process that becomes more meaningful because of it.

Tell us what you do when you aren’t working on research and why. Do you have hobbies? Special talents? Other passions besides science? 

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Photo courtesy of Megan Morikawa.

When I’m not working on research, I’ve got too many strange hobbies! I play the guitar & sing (a great artistic compliment to the more analytical side of research), I’m starting to learn woodworking (the latest project was a crazy end-grain cutting board), I play with microcontrollers like the Arduino (I suppose equally useful to sciences), I enjoy cooking and baking (usually inversely related with time in the lab – I’m currently into making pasta), I also have an ongoing project to make biologically accurate marine organisms as crocheted tree ornaments. I highly recommend using the incredible resources/studios/clubs Stanford has available to play around with new skills! 

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