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Graduate Student Profile - Laura Martin (Biology)

Laura Martin While deciding on a field of graduate studies, Laura Martin, then a biology major at Duke University, came across a description of William Hamner's work at UCLA. An ornithologist by training, Dr. Hamner soon learned he was allergic to feathers. So for the past 18 years, he and his wife, Peggy, have been "bird watching" underwater, studying a range of free-swimming animals, moving up the food chain from plankton to jellyfish to pelagic fish, mammals, and sea birds.

Laura came to Los Angeles for a meeting, and Dr. Hamner liked what he saw. Not only was Laura bright and hard-working, she was an athlete: a runner and a swimmer on the Duke swim team. To Hamner, a biology professor and director of the UCLA Marine Science Center, this suggested a couple of positive things.

"Her sports were focused on individual performance, and science is also an individual activity. I thought that attribute was interesting," he recalls. He also thought that her fitness and strength were well-suited to fieldwork in difficult terrains. Working together in Palau, they have to "hike over the top of a jungle ridge with all their gear" in order to reach the marine lakes where they work, Dr. Hamner explained. "She makes two trips while I make one."

An archipelago in the western Pacific, Palau has 70 marine lakes, porous limestone caverns filled with sea water not quite as salty as the ocean, where various creatures have become isolated from the rest of the animal kingdom. This isolation is what attracts many researchers.

Over the course of her graduate studies, Laura has spent more than two years on Palau, much of it at a lake with a large population of moon jellyfish. Moon jellyfish are found in coastal bays around the world, where they are rarely welcomed. Since jellyfish eat both the plankton eaten by fish larva and the larva themselves, they are often blamed for depleted fish populations. "People are interested in them because of that, and because they are an annoyance in a lot of places," Laura says, clogging fish nets and causing trouble in busy ports.

Laura set out to determine how much of this bad reputation - particularly for their supposedly huge appetites - was deserved. It was often noted that where a lot of jellyfish were found, there were few plankton, and vice versa. People assumed that this was because the jellyfish were eating all the plankton. Laura saw another possible explanation: When lots of jellyfish are around, the plankton have the good sense to hide out.

In fact, her studies show that - at least in one of Palau's marine lakes - plankton migrate up and down over the course of the day, staying out of harm's way. "This appears to be a way to coexist with jellyfish," Laura says, and certainly plankton who can do this would be more likely to survive - along with their genes - than other plankton.

Thirty years ago, scientists would have laughed at her suggestion that plankton could do anything with motivation. It was her mentor, Hamner, who first hypothesized that plankton have a rich behavioral repertoire, in the process opening up a new field of oceanographic research: on-scene observation of oceanic animals in natural settings.

Laura has also found complex behavior among the jellyfish, even though they have no brain. Jellyfish migrate, and they seem to prefer some foods to others. Jellyfish eat by filtering water with their tentacles and sending the catch upward into their stomach. Laura says she has "actually seen them exclude certain prey in favor of others." This observation was made in the laboratory, putting tiny jellyfish under a microscope and watching them eat and digest food.

But most of her work has been done at the lake in Palau, where Laura has built what she calls mesocosms - containers about a meter and a half in diameter and 20 meters high or long. In a container, the researcher can control the number of jellyfish and the amount of prey and get an idea of how much jellyfish eat. But jellyfish being "a notoriously uncooperative animal," Laura has found that only smaller jellyfish are comfortable enough in the enclosure to make for a sound experiment. She'll compare her lab findings with her Palau research for an overall impression of the jellyfish. Meanwhile, her creation of this controlled environment in the middle of the wild has made its own contribution, Dr. Hamner, her adviser, says, providing a middle ground between the authentic observation of natural habitats and the scientific control of the laboratory.

Back in Los Angeles on a dissertation year fellowship, Laura may follow her PhD in biology with some work in women's studies. "Men's impressions of the world have carried over into their interpretation of primate behavior," Laura says. "When women came into the field, they said that's not what's happening." Looking at the marine sciences, Laura would like to explore whether gender has affected "the kinds of questions we ask and our ability to evaluate scientific problems."

Her studies at UCLA have also provided opportunities to try out other careers. In Palau, early in her fieldwork, she became a movie star. Laura and her work were featured in the IMAX film, "The Living Sea". That appearance brought her fan mail from younger women hoping to follow in her footsteps. One of them, Mariah Stark, spent several weeks on Palau with Laura, working under her supervision.

And UCLA's summer school program for high school teachers gave her experiences and information that she used in drafting a curriculum teachers can use in their classrooms to teach units organized around marine science. In doing so, she closes a circle - a 7th grade science teacher had a lot to do with her decision to pursue studies in biology.

When Laura was in college she considered high school teaching as a career. However, the attraction of the marine lakes in Palau remains strong. During her work there, she became the professional and personal partner of Michael Dawson, a UCLA graduate student in evolutionary biology. They hope to find support to continue their studies of these marine lakes and others like them around the world.

"Neither of us could work there without the other person," Laura says. "It's a pretty tough place to work. You need help."

Published in Winter 1999, Graduate Quarterly