Menu
Article Ecology
Dengue-resistance Spreads in Mosquitoes
Satellites Spy on Fish Farms
Fukushima Birds Affected
Boozing for Better Health
Climate Conflict of Interest?
One Year On
Antarctic Invasion
Lions Up Close
More Maternal Effort Means More Robust Offspring
Pesticide Problems for Bees
Ants Share Pathogens for Immunity
Poisonous Shrooms Battle Cancer
Colony Collapse from Pesticides?
Insect Battles, Big and Small
Spotted: Emperor Penguins
Melting Ice Releases Ancient Microbes
Pigeon GPS Identified
It’s Raining Mice
Ocean Plastic Aid Insects
Can Fish Eco-Labeling be Trusted?
How Prawns Lure Prey
Food's Afterlife
A Greener Arctic
The Ecology of Fear
  Mary O’Connor: Warming Up
When it came time for Mary O’Connor to declare her major at Brown University, aquatic biology simply happened to be at the top of an alphabetic listing. She had enjoyed other subjects, especially neuroscience, but “it became clear that to be a neuroscientist I would have to spend time indoors decapitating rats,” O’Connor says. Instead, she spent the next three summers back in her native Washington State doing research on mud snails.

Upon graduating from Brown in 2000, O’Connor spent a year traveling before doing outreach work on climate change for the Environmental Defense Fund. Finally, O’Connor’s career goals came into focus. “I was motivated by the lack of science about the ecological impacts of climate change,” she says. “Now I had a reason to go . . . to grad school.”

METHODS: In John Bruno’s lab at the University of North Carolina, O’Connor studied metabolic theory—the idea that temperature has a predictable effect on organisms’ development. She and her colleagues found that temperature can have a profound impact on the dispersal of planktonic larvae.1 Warming speeds the development of larvae, and “the faster they develop, the shorter [the amount of time] they spend floating in the current and the less they disperse,” says Bruno. And the less they disperse, the greater the risk that populations could become genetically isolated.

In another study, O’Connor and her colleagues warmed up an aquarium-bound food web consisting of phytoplankton and zooplankton—plants and herbivores. They found that the herbivores’ energy needs were too great for the plants to keep up, and overall abundance of both went down.2 “The outcome was unexpected,” she says. Previous assumptions had before predicted that a little bit of warming would boost productivity and leave communities intact, “but people generally didn’t consider the herbivore-plant interactions.”

RESULTS: As a postdoc at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, O’Connor used her experimental work to develop a new theory, which also predicted that warming would result in no change or even a decrease in plant abundance, because an increase in herbivores relative to plants would reduce total biomass.3

Bruno says O’Connor was an extremely disciplined student, and her success came in part from being an excellent time manager. When she started in his lab, “she told me she wasn’t going to work at night because she was married and going to have a family. You’re a little concerned as an advisor, but I think it’s very inspiring.”

DISCUSSION: In January 2011 O’Connor left California for Canada to start her own lab at the University of British Columbia (UBC) with three goals in mind: to continue to develop a framework for how temperature affects food-web dynamics, to apply models to seagrass communities in Canada, and to mentor young scientists. Sally Otto, the director of the Centre for Biodiversity Research at UBC, said that during O’Connor’s job interview she was impressed with the young researcher’s interest in asking big questions about the impacts of climate change. “That ability to see the bigger picture really made Mary stand out,” Otto says.

As for mentoring, it already seems to be working out. O’Connor’s lab has four graduate students, a postdoc, and a pair of undergrads. She also now has two children—Caroline, 4, and Gillian, 2—and her oldest likes to come to work and help sort samples.
Microbial Awakening
Little Fish in a Big Pond
No Sex Required
Old New Species
Beetles Warm BC Forests
Coughing Seashells
Marlboro Chicks
Fighting Microbes with Microbes
Fly Guts Reveal Animal Inventory
Cities Affect Global Weather Currents
Modeling All Life?
Killer Kittens
Opinion: Paradoxical Amphibians
Oil Additive Harming Seabirds
Diversity Defeats Disease
Icy Algae in a Changing Arctic
Native Frogs Beat Invasive Toads
Bridges for UK Water Voles
Mysterious Sea Lion Stranding Continues
Can CO2 Help Grow Rainforests?
Arctic Foxes Suffer from Seafood Diet
Plants Communicate with Help of Fungi
Ladybird Bioterrorists
Arctic Bacteria Thrives at Mars Temps
Mary O’Connor: Warming Up
Bird Bullies
An Ocean of Viruses
Science on Lockdown
 
West Coast Marine Threat
The Gigapixel Camera
Mixed Report for Oiled Salt Marshes
EPA to Regulate Greenhouse Emissions
Genetic Shift in Salmon
A Scientist Emerges
Life (Re)Cycle
How Green Are Your Fish?
School Teachers Release Invasives
Zoo Virus Swap
Mothers-In-Law and Menopause
Stalking Sharks
From Plants and Fungi to Clouds
Good Vibrations
Down and Dirty
Dogs Improve Beach Sanitation
A Funding Reboot
Agriculture-Ecology Initiative Announced
Evolving Dependence
Beard Beer
Opinion: Controlling Invasion
Natural-Born Doctors
Opinion: Fishy Deaths
A Celebrated Symposium