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Interview with Amelia Ritger

📷 Amelia Ritger

Journalist: Luming Cao

Luming: Welcome to SciSection. My name is Luming. And I'm your journalist for this episode. We're joined today with Amelia Ritger from UC Santa Barbara. She is a PhD student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology. Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me today, Amelia.

Amelia: Thanks for having me.

Luming: Yeah, so could you tell us a little about your academic background?

Amelia: Yeah. So for my undergraduate, I attended Dartmouth College, which is in rural New Hampshire. It is a liberal arts school, and so I received a general biology degree. And I actually double majored in biology and anthropology. While I was at Dartmouth, I did a couple of classes that were really inspiring to me, one of which was the ecology class and the animal behavior class. And both of those classes really got me interested in doing scientific research and pursuing ecology further. So while I was at Dartmouth, I worked in a couple of laboratories, one of which was primarily a freshwater ecology laboratory, and I got to work with some really amazing graduate students while I was an undergraduate researcher in those labs, and I did some research on phytoplankton and looking at how leaf up into lakes can affect kake communities. And I also studied some Arctic cyanobacteria, so a little bit of diversity in the freshwater systems. I did a couple of internships. I was lucky enough to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which is run by the National Science Foundation. During that experience, I actually traveled to the Cayman Islands and worked on invasive lionfish in the Cayman Islands. And that was my first experience doing scientific research while scuba diving. And with that experience, I kickstarted my career into marine biology because I haven't… well, so I worked on invasive lionfish during this REU program, and then I continued to work with lionfish after I graduated college.

Amelia: But then I ended up returning back to terrestrial systems once I finished that invasive lionfish research. And I moved to New York City, and I started working in an ant lab. And so what we're doing broadly was studying the evolution of eusociality, which is what a lot of social insects do, like bees and wasps and ants, they have these social systems, where you generally have one individual who is in charge of reproduction for the colony, and all the other individuals who are in charge of everything else, which is generally foraging, keeping things clean, and care of the babies. And so we were using the clonal raider ant to study how eusociality might have evolved. And so that gave me a lot of great experience and with laboratory work. And then I came to UC Santa Barbara to start my PhD back in marine systems.

Luming: That’s really cool. So could you talk more about your project with lionfish?

Amelia: Yeah, so, I first got introduced to lionfish during the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program in the Cayman Islands. I was working with Dr. Thomas Frazer, and we were looking at how prey naivete affects lionfish predator-prey relationships. And so invasive lionfish have been incredibly detrimental to the Atlantic and Caribbean seas. And there are a couple of different reasons for that. One of which is that when invasive lionfish have been introduced into the new system and don't have any natural predators, prey don't recognize them as a predator. They are generalist predators, and so they can just eat everything, and anything that they can get their mouth around. They also don't have any high parasite loads in the new environment. And so I wanted to focus on one of these aspects, which was prey naivete—so prey might not recognize lionfish as a predator. And so I put lionfish and was looking at how prey fish were behaving around lionfish in jars. It was a very, very basic experiment. And then I received this grant, once I graduated from Dartmouth a year later, I received a grant to continue the research back in the Caribbean. And so I moved down to Curacao, which is a bit farther south from the Cayman Islands. And I started setting up the experiment. And then I realized that one of the more interesting questions to answer regarding lionfish predator-prey interactions is not if prey can recognize lionfish as a predator, but taking it a step before that, and asking, “How are lionfish selecting their prey?” And so it kind of eliminates the idea of like, are prey naive, and it's more focusing on how are lionfish selecting their prey and what prey can they actually capture. And so with the field assistant, we designed these underwater enclosures which were quite large. And we designed them, we built them out of PVC pipe and mosquito net, and we sewed them together, put them out on the reef, and then we filled them with an artificial reef, which were actually just dead corals around the reef. And so we recreated this miniature coral reef system inside of our enclosures which we filled with prey species of our choosing in the exact proportions that we wanted. And then we would release a lionfish into the enclosure, let it hunt naturally, eat whatever it wanted to eat, and, importantly, eat whatever it could capture. And then we would collect the lionfish and dissect the stomach and look at what it actually consumed, given what it was provided. And so that was one half of the project that I conducted while I was in Curacao.

Amelia: So the other half of the project was looking at heavy metal accumulation in lionfish. And so on Curacao, there's an oil refinery which is notorious for creating a lot of negative health impacts, unfortunately, on the human populations living downwind of the refinery, and so I was interested in answering the question, do the emissions from this oil refinery affect fish populations to the point of like, should we be concerned when we are consuming fish from the island? Kind of like how tuna is really high in mercury—tuna bioaccumulates mercury because it's high on the food chain. And so lionfish because they are such an invasive predator on these reefs, I was treating lionfish as sort of a top predator on those reefs because unfortunately, because of human impacts like fishing, a lot of the apex predators like sharks and groupers have been removed from those reefs. And so I treated lionfish as kind of a top predator that might be bioaccumulating unhealthy levels of toxins, specifically metals in their tissue. And then when humans go out and capture those fish and eat them, we will also be accumulating those toxins. And so what I did for that project was I went around the island, upwind and downwind of the refinery, I spearfished hundreds of lionfish, I collected tissue samples, and I also collected stomach contents so that I could make comparisons between how the toxins are accumulating and what the lionfish are eating. And I actually ended up finding that lionfish are safe to eat. The level very specifically in their tissue is well below what we would be concerned about.

Luming: Okay, that's good to know. So what was it like to do research in Curacao? Do you have a favorite memory or experience you could share?

Amelia: Yeah, so research in Curacao, especially doing research that I was doing myself and not necessarily working under some other researcher, it was incredibly labor-intensive. But because of all the work that I put into it, it was incredibly fulfilling.

Amelia: And my one of my favorite parts about the scientific process and just doing science is actually collecting the data. And so I think that the most rewarding experience that I can think of, from when I was down in Curacao was that first lionfish that I removed from the enclosure experiment. So this was the experiment looking at how selective are lionfish with their prey. And so that first lionfish that I removed from the enclosure, brought back to the lab, opened up its stomach, and I saw that it had actually consumed the prey fish in the enclosures rather than just not eating anything at all, or possibly eating something that wasn't supposed to eat. Seeing that was so rewarding because I knew at that point that I actually had a viable experiment. And I did have data to collect.

Luming: Yeah, that sounds pretty amazing. So what about some of the more challenging aspects of your research or the not-so-good experiences?

Amelia: Yeah. So it was a kind of a double-edged sword because I was diving three to four times every day for five months, which was an incredible opportunity and a great experience, and I kind of got to know the local reef fish, but diving so frequently. I ended up getting a couple of ear infections actually, that prevented me from getting in the water for two solid weeks. And so during those two weeks, I couldn't collect data and I had to rely on others in order to go out and do some spearfishing. And I had to find other ways to fill my time, which was frustrating because I'm on this island for a certain amount of time. And so I wanted to use that time to my advantage, and being ill with an ear infection prevented me from doing that.

Luming: Yeah, so you navigated a lot of your interest going from liberal arts college. So how did you decide that marine biology is your passion? Or have you decided?

Amelia: Yeah, so I actually grew up in Southern California. And one of my first experiences interacting with the ocean was going to the aquarium of the Pacific and seeing all the animals in the aquarium. Another experience that I thought was very impactful on me was actually snorkeling at Catalina Island and seeing the bright orange garibaldi swimming in the ocean. And that memory has always stuck with me, because being able to see what is going on under the water was so awe-inspiring. And so when I went to Dartmouth, I knew that I wouldn't be working with marine systems for a couple of years. Because the Dartmouth ecology program specifically is very focused on freshwater systems and terrestrial systems, which was fine. I actually I decided that I wanted to focus on a liberal arts degree, and then through internships and possibly graduate school if I got there, that's when I would work in marine biology. And so my first experience actually scuba diving was during my junior and senior year when I did this REU program down in the Cayman Islands. And that cemented my ability to work in the ocean and my desire to continue working in the ocean. And so when I went down to Curacao, I was diving every single day and loving it, and knew that this is the kind of system that I really love working in. And I love doing fieldwork. And so enjoying where I'm working is really important.

Luming: What advice would you give for students who want to get involved in marine biology and field research?

Amelia: Yeah, so the way that I first started getting into research as an undergraduate was I actually talked to professors whose classes I took. So that's one way, just kind of go up to the professor after class, or in this case, now that we're in a remote setting, maybe send a message to the professor on zoom and see if you can get a one-on-one zoom call with them. But just talking to them and seeing if there's any opportunities in their labs for research experience. And the other way to go about this, which I highly recommend doing, and it's not something that I thought of when I was an undergraduate student, is going to your university's department website. So in my case, I would go to the UCSB Ecology Evolution and Marine Biology department webpage, and then I look through the faculty page and look at the list of all the faculty in my department and get an idea for what research is being done in your department at your university. And if there's anything that pops out to you, send an email to that professor or go to their website, figure out what graduate students are working in their labs. Send an email to the graduate students and ask to see if there's any opportunities for research experience. And unfortunately, because of coronavirus, most of these opportunities nowadays are going to be remote. But that doesn't mean that there aren't research experiences available. So definitely just do a little bit of surfing on the web to see if anyone's doing anything that interests you and, and reach out to them.

Luming: Great. Thank you for sharing this advice, and on that note, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Amelia: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Luming: And that's it for this episode of SciSection. See you next time!


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