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Biodiversity Blog


Meet Stengl-Wyer Fellow: Kristina Black

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Diving on a healthy reef at Orpheus Island Research Station in Australia, 2019 (photo: Misha Matz)
Kristina Black is one of our 2023 Stengl-Wyer FellowsShe is a PhD candidate in the lab of Dr. Misha Matz. Kristina talks here about her broad undergraduate research leading to her passion of researching genetic adaptation for coral restoration.
Tell us where you came from before UT, and what you studied then?
I got my BS in zoology at the University of Oklahoma and an MS in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I grew up in a military family, so we moved between air force bases every couple years and I just ended up going to OU for in-state tuition. I didn't know what I wanted to study or what kinds of career options were available. But I fortunately found myself studying urban mammal diversity for my undergraduate thesis and then pursuing an REU to study how climate change might impact freshwater shrimp fecundity. These research experiences were exciting and transformative, and I decided to continue for an MS studying red fox phylogeography. After graduating with my MS, I worked as a field technician in Isle Royale National Park and then as a genetics technician studying chytrid and endangered salamanders in the Appalachians before pursuing a PhD. Switching from terrestrial systems to marine for my PhD may seem like a hard pivot, but I feel lucky to work in coral reefs because they are the most beautifully-diverse yet the most tragically-failing ecosystem on earth.
What got you interested in studying genetic adaptation for coral restoration in the U.S. Virgin Islands?
My research project as a Stengl-Wyer Fellow is specifically conducted in the U.S. Virgin Islands because I received a research grant to conduct a field experiment at The Nature Conservancy's Coral Innovation Hub in St. Croix, USVI. But all of my research questions are conservation-motivated, and I want my work to be applicable for wildlife management. Coral reefs are rapidly declining worldwide due to climate change, disease, hurricanes, etc. And under such circumstances, reef restoration efforts must consider the adaptive potential of corals to their changing environment. By conducting ecological experiments and observing natural variation using genomic methods, I aim to identify evolutionary applications for coral restoration. 
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Kicking out to a dive site off the wall of the Puerto Rican trench in St. Croix, VI, 2022 (photo: Daisy Flores)
Can you explain a bit how this works?
In my first chapter, I explored environmental drivers of adaptation in two coral species across the Florida Keys. I found that some unexpected variables- including winter temperature- were strongly associated with genetic divergence and I mapped environments with high selective pressure across the reef tract. My second chapter investigated genes underlying environmental adaptation in the Great Barrier Reef. Specifically, I identified a gene for thermal regulation that is under selection in corals and is upregulated in colder latitudes. Consequently, restoration efforts should observe higher fitness when outplanting corals containing this gene to colder reefs. In my third chapter (which I am pursuing as a Stengl-Wyer Fellow), I aim to integrate adaptive genotypes into coral restoration on a degraded reef in St. Croix, USVI. Through controlled breeding, I expect parents with strong adaptations to confer higher fitness to their offspring that are outplanted to a restoration site. In summary, my dissertation aims to 1) identify important environmental gradients for corals, 2) identify genes that improve fitness in different environments, and 3) implement “genetic rescue” by introducing adaptive genotypes into a degraded environment. 
Does Texas present a unique situation, challenge or benefit for your research?
Being based in Austin, I have access to a genetics lab at UT and resources such as the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) for processing genetic sequences. My adviser, Dr. Matz, applies population genomics to coral research, but he uses more advanced techniques than I’ve applied before. By joining his lab, I get to learn newer methods in genomics while studying coral reefs. It might seem odd that we study coral while living in Austin, but I’ve also been lucky to travel for fieldwork to incredible places including the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
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Driving the Matz lab field team to a dive site in Australia in a dinghy, 2019 (photo cred: Carly Scott)
How will being a Stengl-Wyer Fellow help advance your work?
This award has a massive impact on my research progress so I no longer need to be a Teaching Assistant (TA) for income. I’ve enjoyed being a TA, as I’ve developed great mentor/mentee relationships with students and it’s improved my public speaking abilities. However, it’s been difficult to make progress on my research while pouring my energy into being a TA. I’ve already been a TA for 6 semesters (4 more than the requirement) and I've made major sacrifices to my field experiments as a result. This fellowship funds me as a Research Assistant (RA), provides a break from being a TA, and allows me to focus on my research for two semesters so that I can graduate within the 5-year timeline.
Where do you see your research agenda heading after UT?
After graduating, I want to pursue a genetic research career applied to conservation by working as a biologist in government or non-profit agencies. Scientifically managing a protected area like a marine sanctuary is the ultimate dream- to commit to a natural place that I can continuously learn inside-and-out, and in return I can protect and restore unique wildlife. I am most fulfilled by a career that nurtures my personal relationship with the natural environment, connects science with culture, and supports the same experience for the next generation through mentorship and community involvement. I'm most interested in studying genetic adaptation to climate change, and I think the skills I built here at UT in spatial genomics and environmental associations provide a solid toolkit to study these processes in any ecosystem.
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