Conducting important research worldwide
Growing up in St. Maarten, Alyssa Bell attended Montessori, Seventh Day Adventist and then Learning Unlimited schools. Her favourite childhood memories are spent on the beach, which would always be a big family affair. At the age of 12, she left the island with her mother and little sister to complete high school, in Bristol, England. Though she had a hard time adjusting to the cold, wet weather, she eventually settled in. Alyssa is now looking to earn her PhD with a project that will take her closer to home once again.
Tell us about your study abroad.
When I was accepted to the University of Glasgow, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do marine biology specifically, so I applied to zoology instead. Zoology is the branch of biology that relates to the animal kingdom, including the structure, embryology, evolution, classification, habits and distribution of all animals, both living and extinct, and how they interact with their ecosystems.
In the first year, I got the opportunity to join a sea turtle conservation project in Tobago, which made me realize my interests did lie more within marine ecosystems.
When we were focusing on coral reefs within my study, it really resonated with me. Coming from an island, and learning how important they are, made me want to learn more about them and the threats they are facing. I applied and got accepted to a program that included a masters-level report on the topic of coral reefs. This report would be the product of research I would conduct at James Cook University, in Townville, North Queensland, Australia.
The university is one of the world's leading institutions focusing on the tropics. It was safe to say I was excited to become a part of it. The university is located right next to the Great Barrier Reef, a scientist’s dream. I would be conducting research on the combined effects of temperature and CO2 increase on coral physiology. I had to design my entire project from scratch: from my collection methods, to my transportation system, tank system, the lighting and temperature. It was a big endeavour and it took me several weeks to set up.
Once I ran it, took the measurements, compiled the huge amount of data and looked at all the effects, I was pleasantly surprised. Most of the research on coral reefs and the effects of changing temperatures and CO2 are negative, but my research found that though the corals were not very happy, they were able to survive pretty harsh conditions. “There is still hope” is what my final research paper concluded.
Afterwards, as part of my undergrad program, I completed another research project focusing on carbon dioxide vents in Ischia, Italy. There, together with a few other scientists, I looked at the vents to figure out how long venting had been taking place, measure quantities and what effects it has on the nearby ecosystems.
I graduated in July with a first class Master’s degree. I also received an award for the venting project called the Douglas Cochrane Memorial Award.
You are now starting on your PhD. Tell us more.
My supervisor gave me the opportunity to present my own PhD project idea. I proposed to look at coral bleaching in the Caribbean on a regional scale. I wanted to see if and how corals are recovering from bleaching at the various latitudes they are found. If I get enough funding, I would like to look at a number of different species.
With temperatures and ocean acidity rising, some scientists have bleak prognoses. But there has been evidence of regeneration and corals recovering. Nothing has yet been done on a regional scale, though, in the Caribbean, and it would be great to add to that research. I am also curious what the effect would be if there are more storms, as temperatures rise. Storms cool the waters, and I’d like to figure out what effect they would have on the corals below.
With this research, I want to contribute new and real findings to coral reef biology on a whole, as a lot of work can still be done in that area. I also really hope to show the St. Maarten people that they can play a role in their coral reef systems. I want them to get interested and be part of restoring their own reefs.
Diving is a billion-dollar industry globally. People will fly from all over the world, stay in hotels, rent cars, and eat at restaurants just to have a great and unique diving experience. Having an interest in your environment can bring a wealth of jobs as well to the island. People at first thought I was crazy to want to work with animals, and thought I could not make a living. Trust me, if you have a passion, you can find a job related to that passion; you do not have to feel restricted.
For the next six months, I will be perfecting my PhD proposal and looking for funding. After that, I can hopefully return to St. Maarten and start my research!
Why are coral reefs so important?
Coral reefs provide a number of services to the countries they shelter; they provide barriers in case of heavy wave action, and protect the shoreline. They provide shelter of food to a huge number of fish species, which in return supplies fisheries around the world – a main food source for many countries. A lot of potential medicine can be taken from reefs and besides that, they provide a certain beauty that we should appreciate and that many tourists from around the world want to see.
Many people underestimate their importance and natural beauty. We should be more aware of them, be proud to have them and come together to protect them.
Where do you get your drive?
I really like reading, learning things, knowing more than other people and telling them about it. I always want to learn more, I just don’t feel comfortable being in a situation where I am not learning. I like to do things and learn from my mistakes, knowing I am in control. My family helps me with those goals; they support me and want me to succeed.
What do you think about the environmental state of St. Maarten?
I think it could use a lot of work. I think that sometimes people don’t realize that even though you are just one individual, or a small country, you can still make a big difference. If one person throws a plastic bottle on the floor, it matters to the environment; and if everyone does it, it can be very detrimental. But the same counts with positive acts. Things like beach clean-ups; if everyone does his part, it makes a big difference. Educate yourself, be vigilant, and pick up that plastic bottle. Be a valuable person to your community and the world.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I watch a lot of TV! I am a worrier so I need to switch off my thoughts sometimes with something entertaining.
I also love to salsa dance. I am part of an organization called Dance4Water Glasgow. They teach salsa to students for a small fee. The money that we earn is donated to a charity called WaterAID, they provide water in underdeveloped countries. We collect thousands of pounds a year. It started in Glasgow but is now spreading to many other places. They have also started giving photography, belly dancing and capoeira classes. It is amazing; you can teach people a new skill, give them a hobby and help a good cause!
Do you have any advice for young people on St. Maarten?
Find something you are passionate about and do your research to find out how you can get there. Even if others might not understand your passion or ideas, if you want it, there is a way to accomplish your dreams!