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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/interviews/Dr. Karla McDermid


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Dr. Karla McDermid, Associate Professor Marine Science, UH Hilo
Posted by Ann Bell Hudgins, education team, US Fish and Wildlife Service
September 19, 2002

Dr. Karla McDermidWhere do you work and what is your current position?
"I am Associate Professor in the Marine Science department at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo."

What do you have a degree in?
"I received my Ph.D in Botanical Sciences at UH Manoa. I have a double Bachelors Degree in Spanish and Biology from Stanford University."

How long have you been living in Hawai`i?
"Since 1982."

What brought you to Hawai`i?
"To study seaweeds with Dr. Isabella Abbott at UH Manoa. I had started graduate school at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute but decided to transfer because no one there was working on seaweeds. The Institute has a big name, but it wasn't where I could do what I wanted to do. There was no requirement to do a teaching assistant-ship and I really wanted to teach. So I left to study under the world's expert on red seaweeds. I had known her at Stanford when I was an undergraduate. That's what brought me out here."

Would you consider her your mentor?
She was a mentor and an impetus, you bet. In college I didn't know what I wanted to be. I had professors who said I should go get a scholarship to study Children's Literature in Mexico. I was also interested in Medical School. But I also had really good experiences in the marine biology lab and that is where I met 'Issie' (Dr. Abbott). When I was a Senior every month I would call my parents and say 'I think I know what I want to be now. I think I know what I want to do next year.' When I was taking classes at the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford I took a summer class where I was one of a few students who, when we would study in the kelp bed I was always happy to look at the seaweeds and identify them. To me plants are easier cause they don't swim off, and I am kind of near-sighted anyway. They don't move. So I can go up to them, I can touch them, I can sniff them. When Issie gave encouragement she would say 'Wow, you are really good at that.' Positive reinforcement makes a world of difference. I could've ended up studying chitons, or all kinds of things, but when someone shows an interest in you and encourages you, that makes the difference. So that is the same kind of thing that I try to do with my students too. Having this interview even reminds me that it is by giving students opportunities to shine and encouraging them when they do well, that they start to say, 'maybe I can do this.' That is why I try to get students interested in doing whatever they are good at, it doesn't have to be seaweeds."

I understand that you already have done some work up at Midway, and held some UH classes up at Midway Atoll. Is this correct?
"Yes. It was 1996 when I first visited to Midway and fell in love with the place. That was for one week in September. I was invited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to go up to Midway to collect and survey seaweeds."

Did that trip intrigue your interest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?
"You bet, I knew these islands were 'out there' but during that week in '96 I found it to be such a wonderful place that I decided to bring a class up there. There were dorms, there was a new private co-operator, it was just turning over to the public and the following summer they said there would be a cafeteria and bikes. I brought my first class of eight students to Midway in the summer of '97, and I had a wonderful two weeks. I developed a course called Atoll Ecosystems. The program grew from one class with eight students to one summer we had six different classes from seabirds to marine mammals to teaching marine science techniques. Last January I was going to have to cancel the 'Atoll' class because flights were no longer available to go to Midway. But I didn't want to cancel the class. Luckily, I had received an educational partnership grant for minority serving institutions. It was called 'Atoll and Oceans and Ecosystem Learning Experiences' and provided funds to take Pacific islanders and Hawaiian island students to an atoll. We spent a week on Palmyra Atoll in exchange for the three weeks we would've spent on Midway. We had a wonderful time, and instead of bikes every student got kayaks."

How did you go about picking students for this trip?
"Randy (Dr. Randy Kosaki, Chief Scientist on NOWRAMP 2002) called and said 'Can you get me a list of students who are certified divers and can identify fish or seaweeds or something else?' So I submitted the list. "Of the seven students on this expedition I think about half have been to Midway or took the Palmyra class. They kind of knew what to expect. He (Randy) picked leaders of each team and I became an REA Dive Team Leader. Randy taught at UH Hilo and we "team taught" at Palmyra. It was nice he asked me to participate."

How do you study seaweeds on NOWRAMP 2002?
"Ten years ago we went on an expedition like this but to Palau and we just collected. This year we all decided we wanted the algal protocol to be different and be quantitative. Always before there was one seaweed person on a team, so we would have to do several things when we go down. This time, Randy promised us there would be two seaweed people per team, which allows us to do many things we could not to before. We take a photo, and we do photo quadrates along a transect line. So as the 'fish people' swim the transect line, we take photos. Six photos per transect line. Then within the quadrat, we also 'ground truth' it with our eyes because I don't trust the camera. So we look and collect and we write down things we see, the percent coverage (amount of seaweed across the study area,' the abundance of things that are in the area, and then we collect. We also do a random swim to look for things we didn't count in a specific quadrant, because we might miss some rare nifty things. It is much more fun to work with fresh specimens versus frozen Popsicles back home. Every night we take the specimens out of our baggies, we dump them in fresh sea water, we look at them, press them and then sort them. Things we don't know or that are too small even for out dissecting scope, we 'pickle' in formaldehyde solution. Freezing often destroys cell tissue, I don't like it very much. So I prefer to keep little things in little vials for further study when we get home."

What has surprised you the most or what was an unexpected find?
"In general, there is a lot more Halimeda, the oatmeal sand, than I expected. We also found this real rare brown seaweed called Sporochnus in the 'murk' (at Maro Reef), a place where diving conditions were not optimal. It is not a new species, it was collected in NOWRAMP 2000. What is also beautiful is the amount of seaweed you can have with healthy coral. Most of the dogma in marine biology is that you either have a system dominated by coral or you have a system dominated by micro algae. High fish, low fish, low nutrients, high nutrients, make a chart of the four possible states of the reef. To me, the NWHI show me that reef ecology is not so cut and dry. You can have coral and seaweeds co-existing, and it is okay. I was talking to Nainoa Thompson the other day and he asked me, 'what is a healthy reef.' A healthy reef is one that is when a system is in balance. Different places have different balances. If you think about Nihoa versus Maro versus French Frigate Shoals, each one is different because each have unique physical attributes. One is a reef, one is an atoll, one is a sand scowered wind blown (islet) so they don't all look the same. Because Necker and Nihoa do not have well developed reefs, does not mean that they are unhealthy. They just have a different set of physical factors which shape the definition of balance."

I heard you were quoted in a news release explaining that this expedition is significant because it is intergenerational, can you explain?
"We have got a continuum of experts who are part of the expedition from the 'gray hairs' to mid-career scientists and resource managers to graduate and undergraduate students who are the future caretakers. There is lifetime of work to be done up here and we have to pass the torch. We have three generations on board: folks like Randy, `Aulani, Greta and me who are cohorts of sorts. Then there are older, more experienced scientists like Jim Maragos and Don Potts, and younger people - the students who are learning protocol, learning etiquette, learning good diving techniques, learning how to stay focused. We are passing on many things, not just our expertise. I think it is real important to recognize that we are not just collecting data, we are building a continuum.

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Ann Bell Hudgins
Ann Bell Hudgins

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