ECR Spotlight is a series of interviews with early-career authors from a selection of papers published in Journal of Experimental Biology and aims to promote not only the diversity of early-career researchers (ECRs) working in experimental biology during our centenary year but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Nicole Martin is an author on ‘ Warmer and more acidic conditions enhance performance of an endemic low-shore gastropod’, published in JEB. Nicole conducted the research described in this article while a PhD student in Prof. Tamara Robinson and Prof. Susana Clusella-Trullas's lab at Department of Botany and Zoology, Centre for Invasion Biology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. She is now a climate and environment consultant at C4EcoSolutions, Cape Town, investigating how the interplay between the physiology and ecology of organisms shapes their responses to interacting drivers of change, with the aim of understanding and mitigating human-driven environmental impacts.

Nicole Martin

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

My scientific journey began with a deep-rooted passion for nature and a curiosity about how natural systems function. During my undergraduate, I became particularly fascinated with subjects related to global change. During my honours degree, I examined competitive interactions between native and alien ascidians. My PhD research then focused on investigating the interactive effects of drivers of change on natural systems, culminating in the development of a framework for how climate change influences biological invasions. I also studied native predator preference under different climate scenarios, as well as the impact of warming, cooling and acidification on the survival and shell properties of marine molluscs. My recent research centres on the impacts of marine heatwaves and cold spells on native and alien marine invertebrates.

How would you explain the main finding of your paper to a member of the public?

We studied the effects of warming, cooling and acidification on a sea snail (whelk) native to southern Africa. The experiments were designed to closely simulate how conditions associated with climate change are changing in nature, giving us more ecologically relevant results. Our study documented this whelk's physiological abilities and flexibility for the first time. We discovered that when the whelk was pre-exposed to slightly warmer conditions, it performed and survived better in extreme warm conditions. Surprisingly, when pre-exposed to both mild warming and acidification, whelk performance and survival at extreme warm conditions was even better, which goes against expectations and data from other organisms. This species’ resilience and flexibility to changing conditions might be attributed to its natural exposure to predictable temperature and pH fluctuations in its habitat, enabling it to activate necessary coping mechanisms when faced with extreme conditions.

What are the potential implications of this finding for your field of research?

Firstly, these findings improve our understanding of how marine organisms, like whelks, respond to multiple stressors such as warming and acidification under realistic scenarios, giving us a more accurate picture of the potential impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems. Secondly, our discovery reveals that some marine organisms may have a greater capacity to cope with multiple stressors than previously thought, because of their ability to acclimate to changing conditions. This could lead to more nuanced predictions about the effects of climate change on marine biodiversity. Additionally, our observation that pre-exposure to combined warming and acidification can enhance the ability of marine organisms to tolerate more extreme conditions challenges existing theories about how multiple stressors interact, potentially opening new avenues of research. Our findings also highlight the importance of considering the way environmental conditions vary in nature when studying the impacts of climate change, which can help refine experimental designs and improve the accuracy of predictions. Lastly, our results could contribute to conservation efforts by identifying marine species that may be more resilient to the impacts of climate change, guiding targeted conservation actions and management strategies.

Throughout this study, I learned that understanding physiological responses in marine organisms is complex and challenging, as they can be influenced by many factors and interactions. I also learned that sometimes the results of a study can raise more questions than they answer, emphasising the importance of being adaptable and open-minded in scientific research. Finally, mimicking climate change scenarios in the lab is a time-consuming and labour-intensive process, underscoring the need for patience and persistence in conducting such experiments.

The endemic girdled dogwhelk (Trochia cingulata) as typically found in mussel beds of South African coastal shores.

The endemic girdled dogwhelk (Trochia cingulata) as typically found in mussel beds of South African coastal shores.

Which part of this research project was the most rewarding/challenging?

The most challenging yet rewarding part of this research project was venturing into the physiological side of ecology. As an ecologist, it was initially difficult to adapt to the detailed and meticulous approach of physiologists, as ecologists typically focus on broader patterns and interactions. However, after navigating through this new perspective and successfully integrating both approaches, the result was a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. Completing this research during the COVID pandemic added an extra layer of difficulty, but overcoming these challenges and producing meaningful findings made the whole process even more rewarding. It is one of the pieces of work that I am most proud of, as it demonstrates the value of perseverance and adaptability in scientific research. Looking back, I am grateful for the opportunity to have expanded my knowledge and skills in this interdisciplinary field, while also contributing to our understanding of the impacts of climate change on marine organisms.

Are there any important historical papers from your field that have been published in JEB?

‘Evolutionary and acclimation-induced variation in the heat-shock responses of congeneric marine snails (genus Tegula) from different thermal habitats: implications for limits of thermotolerance and biogeography’ by Tomanek and Somero (1999; doi:10.1242/jeb.202.21.2925) investigated the heat-shock responses of four marine snail species from different thermal habitats, examining the effects of short-term heat stress and thermal acclimation on the synthesis of heat-shock proteins (hsps) in gill tissue. The study revealed the temperatures at which enhanced synthesis of hsps first occurred, temperatures of maximal induction of hsp synthesis, and temperatures at which hsp synthesis was heat inactivated were correlated with the thermal niches of the snails. Acclimation shifted some hsp synthesis parameters, but genetic differences in heat-shock responses persisted.

This study paved the way for future research by showing that evolutionary and acclimation-induced variations in heat-shock responses could have significant implications for the limits of thermotolerance and biogeography of marine organisms. The findings contributed to our understanding of the potential impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems and how the abilities of marine organisms to adapt to changing environmental conditions might be influenced by their evolutionary histories.

If you had unlimited funding, what question in your research field would you most like to address?

I would like to address the overarching question of how the interactions between climate change, invasion biology, habitat destruction, pollution and overexploitation affect natural systems on a global scale. This ambitious project would involve interdisciplinary collaboration among experts in various fields to develop a comprehensive understanding of the cumulative and synergistic effects of these stressors on ecosystems. The research would include large-scale monitoring and data collection, advanced modelling techniques, and experimental manipulations to identify the key drivers of ecosystem responses to multiple stressors. It would also investigate how organisms adapt and acclimate to these changes and whether they exhibit resilience or vulnerability in the face of mounting environmental challenges. By addressing this complex question, we could develop more targeted and effective conservation strategies, ecosystem management plans and environmental policies to mitigate the negative impacts of human activities on the planet's natural systems.

What's next for you?

I currently work for a company that develops climate change adaptation and mitigation plans for vulnerable ecosystems and communities worldwide. The company (C4EcoSolutions) collaborates with various international organisations, private firms and governments, and specialises in climate change management, global biodiversity conservation, ecosystem restoration and scientific research to inform adaptive management. Ultimately, I hope to use my expertise to make a meaningful impact on the preservation of our planet's ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Nicole Martin's contact details: C4EcoSolutions, 18 Gerrie Ave, Dennendal, Cape Town 7945, South Africa.


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Warmer and more acidic conditions enhance performance of an endemic low-shore gastropod
J. Exp. Biol.