Karla McDermid, Associate Professor Marine Science, UH Hilo
Posted by Ann Bell Hudgins, education team, US Fish and
September 19, 2002
do you work and what is your current position?
"I am Associate Professor in the Marine Science department
at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo."
do you have a degree in?
"I received my Ph.D in Botanical Sciences at UH Manoa.
I have a double Bachelors Degree in Spanish and Biology
from Stanford University."
long have you been living in Hawai`i?
brought you to Hawai`i?
"To study seaweeds with Dr. Isabella Abbott at UH Manoa.
I had started graduate school at Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institute but decided to transfer because no one there was
working on seaweeds. The Institute has a big name, but it
wasn't where I could do what I wanted to do. There was no
requirement to do a teaching assistant-ship and I really
wanted to teach. So I left to study under the world's expert
on red seaweeds. I had known her at Stanford when I was
an undergraduate. That's what brought me out here."
you consider her your mentor?
She was a mentor and an impetus, you bet. In college I didn't
know what I wanted to be. I had professors who said I should
go get a scholarship to study Children's Literature in Mexico.
I was also interested in Medical School. But I also had
really good experiences in the marine biology lab and that
is where I met 'Issie' (Dr. Abbott). When I was a Senior
every month I would call my parents and say 'I think I know
what I want to be now. I think I know what I want to do
next year.' When I was taking classes at the Hopkins Marine
Station at Stanford I took a summer class where I was one
of a few students who, when we would study in the kelp bed
I was always happy to look at the seaweeds and identify
them. To me plants are easier cause they don't swim off,
and I am kind of near-sighted anyway. They don't move. So
I can go up to them, I can touch them, I can sniff them.
When Issie gave encouragement she would say 'Wow, you are
really good at that.' Positive reinforcement makes a world
of difference. I could've ended up studying chitons, or
all kinds of things, but when someone shows an interest
in you and encourages you, that makes the difference. So
that is the same kind of thing that I try to do with my
students too. Having this interview even reminds me that
it is by giving students opportunities to shine and encouraging
them when they do well, that they start to say, 'maybe I
can do this.' That is why I try to get students interested
in doing whatever they are good at, it doesn't have to be
understand that you already have done some work up at Midway,
and held some UH classes up at Midway Atoll. Is this correct?
"Yes. It was 1996 when I first visited to Midway and
fell in love with the place. That was for one week in September.
I was invited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to go
up to Midway to collect and survey seaweeds."
that trip intrigue your interest in the Northwestern Hawaiian
"You bet, I knew these islands were 'out there' but
during that week in '96 I found it to be such a wonderful
place that I decided to bring a class up there. There were
dorms, there was a new private co-operator, it was just
turning over to the public and the following summer they
said there would be a cafeteria and bikes. I brought my
first class of eight students to Midway in the summer of
'97, and I had a wonderful two weeks. I developed a course
called Atoll Ecosystems. The program grew from one class
with eight students to one summer we had six different classes
from seabirds to marine mammals to teaching marine science
techniques. Last January I was going to have to cancel the
'Atoll' class because flights were no longer available to
go to Midway. But I didn't want to cancel the class. Luckily,
I had received an educational partnership grant for minority
serving institutions. It was called 'Atoll and Oceans and
Ecosystem Learning Experiences' and provided funds to take
Pacific islanders and Hawaiian island students to an atoll.
We spent a week on Palmyra Atoll in exchange for the three
weeks we would've spent on Midway. We had a wonderful time,
and instead of bikes every student got kayaks."
did you go about picking students for this trip?
"Randy (Dr. Randy Kosaki, Chief Scientist on NOWRAMP
2002) called and said 'Can you get me a list of students
who are certified divers and can identify fish or seaweeds
or something else?' So I submitted the list. "Of the
seven students on this expedition I think about half have
been to Midway or took the Palmyra class. They kind of knew
what to expect. He (Randy) picked leaders of each team and
I became an REA Dive Team Leader. Randy taught at UH Hilo
and we "team taught" at Palmyra. It was nice he
asked me to participate."
do you study seaweeds on NOWRAMP 2002?
"Ten years ago we went on an expedition like this but
to Palau and we just collected. This year we all decided
we wanted the algal protocol to be different and be quantitative.
Always before there was one seaweed person on a team, so
we would have to do several things when we go down. This
time, Randy promised us there would be two seaweed people
per team, which allows us to do many things we could not
to before. We take a photo, and we do photo quadrates along
a transect line. So as the 'fish people' swim the transect
line, we take photos. Six photos per transect line. Then
within the quadrat, we also 'ground truth' it with our eyes
because I don't trust the camera. So we look and collect
and we write down things we see, the percent coverage (amount
of seaweed across the study area,' the abundance of things
that are in the area, and then we collect. We also do a
random swim to look for things we didn't count in a specific
quadrant, because we might miss some rare nifty things.
It is much more fun to work with fresh specimens versus
frozen Popsicles back home. Every night we take the specimens
out of our baggies, we dump them in fresh sea water, we
look at them, press them and then sort them. Things we don't
know or that are too small even for out dissecting scope,
we 'pickle' in formaldehyde solution. Freezing often destroys
cell tissue, I don't like it very much. So I prefer to keep
little things in little vials for further study when we
has surprised you the most or what was an unexpected find?
"In general, there is a lot more Halimeda,
the oatmeal sand, than I expected. We also found this real
rare brown seaweed called Sporochnus in the 'murk'
Reef), a place where diving conditions were not optimal.
It is not a new species, it was collected in NOWRAMP 2000.
What is also beautiful is the amount of seaweed you can
have with healthy coral. Most of the dogma in marine biology
is that you either have a system dominated by coral or you
have a system dominated by micro algae. High fish, low fish,
low nutrients, high nutrients, make a chart of the four
possible states of the reef. To me, the NWHI show me that
reef ecology is not so cut and dry. You can have coral and
seaweeds co-existing, and it is okay. I was talking to Nainoa
Thompson the other day and he asked me, 'what is a healthy
reef.' A healthy reef is one that is when a system is in
balance. Different places have different balances. If you
think about Nihoa
versus Maro versus French
Frigate Shoals, each one is different because each have
unique physical attributes. One is a reef, one is an atoll,
one is a sand scowered wind blown (islet) so they don't
all look the same. Because Necker
and Nihoa do not have well developed reefs, does not mean
that they are unhealthy. They just have a different set
of physical factors which shape the definition of balance."
heard you were quoted in a news release explaining that
this expedition is significant because it is intergenerational,
can you explain?
"We have got a continuum of experts who are part of
the expedition from the 'gray hairs' to mid-career scientists
and resource managers to graduate and undergraduate students
who are the future caretakers. There is lifetime of work
to be done up here and we have to pass the torch. We have
three generations on board: folks like Randy, `Aulani, Greta
and me who are cohorts of sorts. Then there are older, more
experienced scientists like Jim Maragos and Don Potts, and
younger people - the students who are learning protocol,
learning etiquette, learning good diving techniques, learning
how to stay focused. We are passing on many things, not
just our expertise. I think it is real important to recognize
that we are not just collecting data, we are building a