Women marine scientists share their stories

Anela Choy

© L'Oréal USA

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego (USA)

Through the burning of fossil fuels and consumption of seafood, humans worldwide have impacted ocean ecosystems. Understanding how all of the creatures in the open ocean interact and feed on one another is the focus of Dr. Anela Choy’s research. Additionally, pinpointing how multiple human impacts influence ocean food webs is critical to ensuring their sustained and healthy existence.

In addition to disentangling food web structure and function, Dr. Anela Choy’s work contributes crucial knowledge about the ecosystem impacts of marine plastic pollution and will aid in developing strategies to manage and conserve ocean ecosystems.

In 2018, she has been named as one of the 15 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Rising Talents.

Tell us a bit about your past and current research, what types of research vessels you have used and with whom you have collaborated.

I am trained as a Biological Oceanographer but my research is highly interdisciplinary, merging concepts from ecology, toxicology, and biogeochemistry. I focus on understanding how predator-prey interactions in the deep sea, Earth's largest habitat, fit together into food webs that ultimately feed global human societies. To figure out who is eating whom, my lab combines a number of tools and perspectives, including using remotely operated vehicles to observe feeding events in situ, analysis of predator stomach contents or diet, and measuring biochemical trophic tracers such as stable isotopes and trace metals. We've looked at the vertical connectivity of animals living near the surface and deep down in the water column, through diel vertical migration or large movements across the water column by animals. We've also traced mercury through open ocean food webs and back into human societies, and have looked at how food webs are changing over time due to fishing and climate change.

As a society that depends very intimately on the global oceans for climate regulation, sustenance and ecosystem services, we are at a challenging point in time because we are all at once trying to further understand how the ocean system inherently functions AND how human societies are rapidly altering the natural states of these systems in unprecedented ways. Thus, as an Oceanographer who aims to contribute to these two separate aims, one must be creative and merge multiple approaches in innovative ways to answer complex, big picture questions about our global oceans.

  

How do you think your L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Rising Talents funding, training and visibility will affect your future research and overall career?

I am humbled and honored to receive this award, and I gratefully acknowledge the strong, special, and absolutely generous community of family, friends, and colleagues who have been an integral part of my scientific journey. I hope that this award will highlight our great need to learn about our ocean planet, to fund more incredible women into science to do this work.

From your perspective having grown up in Hawai’i, what are the most significant of the problems facing the ocean near home? Have these influenced your research focus or not?

Growing up in Hawaii I developed an intimate connection with the ocean at a young age. This connection was nurtured by the culture of Hawaii and by family members who taught me the names and habitats of the many animals living in the ocean, and the importance of a balanced and complete ecosystem. I didn’t know it at the time, but the combination of a multicultural existence in Hawaii and the regular exploration of, and recreation in nature taught me to see how different pieces fit together to form big, complex and beautiful pictures.

Having this close connection to the ocean has grounded me deeply as I have moved through life, and yes, has certainly shaped how I pursue science and what I work on. I am pursuing a career in science because I think it is a meaningful way to connect people of all walks of life to the natural world around them, and to inspire appreciation for our complex natural world. I enjoy the intersection between humanity and the natural world that a career in science allows you to intimately probe.

Hawaii and many other island nations face a multitude of environmental challenges, currently. The food webs offshore (my focus) are changing in response to fishing and climate, the species composition is shifting and the average size of fish is changing. Having the right amount of "ecosystem science" – science that considers not just harvested species, but how all species fit together in the shared ocean habitat, is key to maintaining a sustainable ocean and a thus a healthy planet.

© L'Oréal Foundation
Sketch of ocean food webs illustrating Anela Choy's research

Keeping in mind the challenges of climate change and higher demand for ocean resources, what do you think the main priorities in ocean science should be in the future?

Sea-going field science, basic science, and empirical science can't be funded at high enough levels. What does a predator in the ocean eat?

How fast does it grow? Where does it swim? Does it swim? All of these are examples of very basic science that is needed across ecosystem scales. In conjunction they (sea-going field science, basic science, and empirical science) form the basis of our decision making – the parameters that build our models – and yet, funding has been a challenge.

In your opinion, what are the main obstacles to more women entering and reaching high levels in your field of science?

Systematically, women face a wide range of barriers to succeeding across all levels of science that are simply not an issue for men.

Some of these barriers relate to our biology as the child-bearers, and some are completely separate and more related to long-standing societal “norms” and rigid beliefs about the fixed roles of women in society. However, I think women have a lot to bring into science.

Women are brilliant critical thinkers. They have the ability to adapt unique perspectives to difficult problems and “see outside of the box.” They are incredibly hard-working and diligent and often, they are armed with keen interpersonal skills. Women are also highly creative, full of gumption and courage, and are willing to fearlessly navigate never-before sailed waters, so to speak. And so, visibility of more women across all stages of science, particularly in positions of leadership, is absolutely critical.

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