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Ecology Graduate Student Grace Ha Investigates Camouflage in Seagrass

UC Davis graduate student Grace Ha
Monday, January 14, 2019 (All day)
This story was originally published on the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences website.

Morning fog hugs Horseshoe Cove, a wispy veil of gray masking the Pacific Ocean. As it rolls towards the beach by the Bodega Marine Laboratory, UC Davis students explore the cove’s tide pools. A sea star engages in a slow motion life-or-death battle with a mussel, a bright yellow nudibranch traverses a kelp blade and a quarter-sized crab scurries among wet rocks.

“We’re in a region with a Mediterranean climate and upwelling— what’s cool is that both of these are associated with high levels of biodiversity,” says Grace Ha, an ecology Ph.D. student. In upwelling zones, nutrient-rich waters from the deep ocean are transported to coastal regions, which makes them hotspots for biodiversity.

As Ha guides the group to the intertidal zone, she discusses the three subset zones within it. Mid-explanation, she stops and turns to the group of undergraduates, all of whom were at the Bodega Marine Laboratory for summer classes.

“You guys are taking the class,” Ha says and turns to Stephanie Tsui, a senior environmental science and management major. “Can you explain zonation?”

Tsui smiles. “The tidal height affects how much a certain area is submerged throughout the day, so there’s the low, middle and upper intertidal zone,” she says. “Because the lower intertidal zone is submerged more, there’s usually more biodiversity and as you get higher, it’s more stressful for marine species because they’re more exposed to the air and desiccation. So there tend to be fewer species living there.”

Though Ha leads the impromptu tour of Horseshoe Cove, her research actually relates to a different habitat. Ha studies seagrass beds, specifically beds of eelgrass (Zostera marina).

“Eelgrass is an unsung hero of coastal zones,” says Ha. “It forms meadows -- beautiful, lush meadows underwater that host a wide diversity of species.”

Since enrolling at UC Davis, Ha has studied eelgrass through the lenses of ecology and natural history. She currently researches the role camouflage plays in these beds.

“I spent a lot of time characterizing this ecosystem and the species in it,” says Ha. “Over the course of that work, I became fascinated by how everything was green—the habitat, the crustaceans, the worms, the anemones, the slugs, even some of the fish. Why was everything green?”

Learning to see marine ecology

Ha didn’t consider marine ecology as an academic pursuit until her sophomore year at Cornell University. Already on the premed track, she wanted to enroll in a class that was completely different than any she’d taken before. One day, she found a flyer on campus advertising a field class in marine biology at the Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine, which is jointly run by Cornell and the University of New Hampshire.  

“It was a class that involved waking up early in the morning for the low tide and coming out into the field to the rocky intertidal,” says Ha. “I had fantastic professors and their whole mission for us was to learn to see, and I think that was the biggest thing for me.”

Ha grew up outside of Philadelphia in Blue Bell, Penn. While she wasn’t particularly outdoorsy during her youth, she was enamored with the rugged, outdoorsy characters she read about in books. After experiencing research firsthand, she was hooked.

“I was obsessed and just took as many ecology classes as I could in my senior and junior year of college,” she says.

Finding inspiration from the late Susan Williams

After graduation, Ha spent a year in Korea on a Fulbright Scholarship, exploring intersections between anthropology, sociology and marine ecology. She returned to the U.S. with her sights set on graduate school, with the Bodega Marine Laboratory already on her radar. Eventually, she joined the lab of the late Susan Williams, whose research revealed how strategically planting seagrass beds could help restore marine environments damaged by human activity.

“I wish I could have heard more stories from her life — her colorful, difficult, incredible life — because through everything she experienced, it was an inspiration to see how she still retained an absolute passion for the ocean,” Ha recently wrote in a piece for Bay Nature Magazine. “What a privilege it was to have her as a role model and mentor.”  

Ha intends to name a new species of crustacean she discovered after Williams.

Read the full story on the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences website.

About Graduate Studies at UC Davis

Graduate Studies at UC Davis includes over 100 dynamic degree programs and a diverse and interactive student body from around the world. Known for our state-of-the-art research facilities, productive laboratories and progressive spirit – UC Davis offers collaborative and interdisciplinary curricula through graduate groups and designated emphasis options, bringing students and faculty of different academic disciplines together to address real-world challenges.

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