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  • Writer's pictureAustin Pugh

Scientist Spotlight: Shea Wyatt PhD Candidate, University of Victoria, Department of Biology

Shea Wyatt is a PhD Candidate at the University of Victoria (UVic) in British Columbia. Shea is currently studying the role of diatoms in the biogeochemical silicon cycle in Subarctic and Arctic marine environments. These phytoplankton are called diatoms and are extremely important phytoplankton in Arctic and Subarctic environments that Shea works on. He has shares with us what drives him, his thoughts about ocean acidification, and what steps he has taken to get him to this point in his career.

Shea Wyatt is standing outside in front of white metal wall that stands a little bit taller than he is. The wall has a sign with a polar bear and a whale tail on oe side and the words SCIENTISTS bidg UKPIK NESTI on the other
Scientist accommodation in Utqiagvik, Alaska after a successful 2019 research cruise on the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Photo credit: Wylee Fitz-Gerald

What is your background?

I started my MSc. at UVic in 2017 before transferring to the PhD program in 2019. The lab that I am part of is focused on biological oceanography and phytoplankton ecophysiology under the supervision of Dr. Diana Varela, who is a professor in the department of Biology and the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences. We use a variety of techniques from biology, biochemistry, and geochemistry to answer questions about marine primary productivity and the cycling of elements in the ocean. Specifically, we focus on, the uptake and utilization of silicon, carbon, and nitrogen by unicellular planktonic algae.

My research is primarily focused on the role of diatoms in the biogeochemical silicon cycle in Subarctic and Arctic marine environments. This topic encompasses several other interests, such as dissolved nutrient and particle stoichiometry, C and N cycling, and other physiological measures of phytoplankton assemblages.

In addition to my current research interests, I have a strong interest in educational practice and climate advocacy. Before I returned to grad school, I was a high school science teacher in Northern Vancouver Island, and I since then, I have maintained my own practice of being a life-long learner by staying engaged with teaching opportunities at UVic and doing volunteer education outreach in the local school system and community (mostly on Zoom these days!). Prior to teaching I worked in several different fields, all of which contributed to my interest in science and education. I worked as a wildlife technician for an environmental consulting company, as an ecotourism guide in the Great Bear Rainforest, and as a public educator and falconer for a local bird of prey rescue organization. My first degree was at UVic, where I completed a BSc Honours in Biology (2010) with oceanographic research that was part of the Canada’s Three Oceans project during the International Polar Year (2007/2008).

View of the Arctic ocean from the deck of a boat over some cloth covered equipment
Running a week-long OA incubation experiment through the Beaufort Sea using a phytoplankton assemblage sampled from the Northern Chukchi Sea. Credit: Shea Wyatt

What is your interest or background in OA?

My interest in OA comes from a long-standing concern about climate change. I learned about the rapid and acute changes in the Arctic due to warming during my undergraduate studies, but it wasn’t until afterwards that I really became more concerned about OA. I first heard OA described as the “sinister cousin to global warming” by a documentary producer while working on a film in the Great Bear Rainforest, and the conversation that we had has stayed with me since. I was inspired to return to grad school by the successes of my students at the high school I was teaching at, and by a desire to further my own research experience. With my experience living and working on the west coast, and previous research in the Arctic, it was a natural decision to want to study how OA was shaping marine ecosystems and processes through the lens of phytoplankton ecology and biogeochemistry.

Can you tell us about your contributions to OA research?

I presented a poster at the 2020 Ocean Sciences Meeting that showed the effect of a pH decrease on a model diatom species, Thalassiosira rotula. The key result was a decrease in cell size, changes in the POC:Chl-a (Particulate organic carbon:Chlorophyll-a) ratio and a notable decrease in biogenic silica quota per unit volume, which is particularly important for understanding silicon cycle dynamics in future oceans. That paper is being submitted for peer-review in the next few weeks and then I will be conducting another experiment to look at the interactive effects of pH and light/temperature on silicification in another model species of diatom.

I have completed other OA field experiments on diatom assemblages in the Subarctic and Arctic, and an additional experiment in the Subtropical North Atlantic which will be synthesized as a chapter of my thesis and later published. The goal of those experiments is to simulate the projected OA for the year 2100 in each ecosystem and compare it to the observations that we have been making in each region for many years. I presented the results of the OA experiment from the Subarctic Northeast Pacific Ocean and Subtropical North Atlantic at the 2019 Aquatic Sciences Meeting – the key result was decreased biomass of the larger-celled portion of the phytoplankton assemblage for both, and a change in which species of Subarctic diatoms were actively silicifying at the lower pH.

One of the key takeaways from my experimental work so far has been that OA experiments are difficult, especially in the field. This has really helped me understand why OA research has generally been under-represented in the literature!

Shea Wyatt Sands on the deck of a boat with ice floating in the ocean behind
In the Beaufort Sea during the 2021 research cruise aboard the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Credit: Shea Wyatt

What is the one take-home about OA that you wish all Canadians knew?

In my view the most pressing OA issue globally (and the important take-home) is the fact that no matter what we do today in terms of changing greenhouse gas emissions, or what our governments say they will do through policies over the next few decades, climate change and OA exist right now with real impacts and are not just a future scenario. We will continue to see additional decreases in pH coupled with warming in essentially every marine ecosystem, and in particular for Canada, the enhanced effect in northern latitudes will likely continue show incredible changes across a very large geographical area.

Efforts to understand the magnitude of such climate stress on organisms, from the microscopic to the megafauna, and on the fundamental element cycles that operate in the oceans, are essentially still in their infancy. We must continue to ask more questions, use innovative and existing technologies and solutions to gain insight, and bring what we learn to not just the academic community but to the public as well. One thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated is that (for better or worse) there is an appetite for science in both the mainstream media and the everyday lives of people. For now, climate change is only going to get worse and scientists should try their best to do good science, and to engage with and communicate clearly to all stakeholders in order to help build public support for science and effective climate action.

Tubes, wires, machinery and a laptop sit on a small desk
This year to run my field OA experiments in a deck incubator at sea I built a gas-mixing rig to make specific CO2 concentrations in air using CO2/air mass-flow controllers, a Li-850 CO2 meter and a computer with power supply. Credit: Shea Wyatt

What excites you most about the current or future of OA research in Canada? This can be your own research, work from collaborators, or anything else you are excited about.

In this field I am most excited by the people who I have built relationships with and the ones who I have yet to meet. The amount of drive and passion in every person, whether they are a new student, a seasoned technician or faculty member, or even a person in a different field who wants to know more about OA, is what keeps me inspired. We are building a generation of scientists and citizens who are not only excellent academics and problem-solvers, but who also support and advocate for many different causes and help lift those around them up to the same level.


To learn more about Shea, please visit his website and ResearchGate profile.


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