Grad Student Woodyard Assesses Vulnerability of Hundreds of Fish Species to Oil Exposure

Arizona State University Ph.D. student Megan Woodyard (right) and Dr. Beth Polidoro (left) attend an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) workshop in Veracruz, Mexico. (Provided by Megan Woodyard)

Arizona State University Ph.D. student Megan Woodyard (right) and Dr. Beth Polidoro (left) attend an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) workshop in Veracruz, Mexico. (Provided by Megan Woodyard)

(L-R) Master’s student Christi Linardich (Old Dominion University), Ph.D. student Kyle Strongin (Arizona State University, ASU), Dr. Beth Polidoro (ASU), and master’s student Megan Woodyard (ASU) attend the 2019 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Provided by Beth Polidoro)

(L-R) Master’s student Christi Linardich (Old Dominion University), Ph.D. student Kyle Strongin (Arizona State University, ASU), Dr. Beth Polidoro (ASU), and master’s student Megan Woodyard (ASU) attend the 2019 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Provided by Beth Polidoro)

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, resource managers recognized the need for species-specific fish risk assessments to help identify which organisms and habitats would be most affected. However, because many marine species lack toxicological data needed for such assessments, researchers suggested an alternate way to help prioritize species with potentially higher sensitivity or risk to petrochemicals (chemicals in petroleum): a vulnerability index that ranks each species’ relative sensitivity or resilience using species-specific life history traits in combination with the likelihood of petrochemical exposure and any known toxicological responses.

Megan Woodyard is helping develop this petrochemical vulnerability index for more than 2,000 Gulf of Mexico marine species to support improved decision-making for marine resource management, mitigation, restoration, and recovery in United States, Mexican, and Cuban waters.

Megan is a masters’ student with Arizona State University’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts and a GoMRI Scholar with the project A Comprehensive Petrochemical Vulnerability Index for Improved Decision-Making and Marine Biodiversity Risk Assessment in the Gulf of Mexico Large Marine Ecosystem.

Her Path

Megan completed three undergraduate degrees (statistics, English, and history) at Arizona State University (ASU) as an honors college student, participating in faculty projects and completing a thesis on a statistical technique called random forest that classifies data using decision trees. Megan’s undergraduate mentor, Dr. Jennifer Broatch, suggested that Dr. Beth Polidoro’s research classifying species’ trait data for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species would align well with Megan’s thesis focus. After Megan successfully designed a random forest code to identify key traits associated with species’ Red List status, Dr. Polidoro offered her a graduate position on her GoMRI research team, which is developing a petrochemical vulnerability index for Gulf of Mexico marine species. Megan is co-advised by Dr. Polidoro and Dr. Steven Saul, who leads the statistical analysis aspects of their research.

Her Work

Megan’s team developed a theoretical framework for the overall vulnerability index that will estimate each marine species’ vulnerability to petroleum chemicals based on their likelihood of exposure, relative sensitivity, and population resilience. Before the index can be applied, the team must compile the relevant data for over 2,000 marine species into a dataset that the index can use. Megan gathered available life history and other data for 1,600 Gulf of Mexico fish species from the IUCN’s Species Information Service, FishBase, academic literature, and other databases. She formatted the data and coded it for different key phrases and consistency across the dataset. “When you pull data from multiple sources, it can be phrased in all sorts of ways,” she explained. “Using the category of ‘diet’ as an example, these programs can search for key phrases about feeding preferences like ‘invertebrates’ or ‘fish’ and flag the species for that diet. This way, I can easily analyze and rank species efficiently and consistently from massive chunks of text.”

Megan is writing rules for the framework index to rank vulnerability based on the compiled data. To do this, the framework will need to classify available data using a numerical, weighted hierarchy that is summed to assign a vulnerability number for each species. Then, Megan can use the framework ranking methodology and results to develop predictions of how petrochemical exposure may impact marine species differently. She will also use the index to identify major knowledge gaps in species’ life history and other data.

Megan’s work, and her colleagues’ work on the more than 400 non-fish species datasets, will provide comprehensive petrochemical vulnerability rankings for over 2,000 Gulf of Mexico species as well as data on each species’ extinction risk and updated spatial distributions. “It’s critical that we develop methodologies to predict how petrochemical exposure will affect Earth’s species,” said Megan. “I hope to create a comprehensive petrochemical vulnerability index of fish species that can help us better understand oil spill impacts and more accurately target areas of concern during future disasters.”

Her Learning

Megan is thankful for the opportunities through GoMRI to work alongside scientists who inspire her, “Through GoMRI, I feel that I’m contributing to something important rather than simply conducting research for the sake of conducting research.” While attending a Red List workshop in Mexico, she watched as Dr. Polidoro and Ph.D. student Kyle Strongin competed to see who could name the most fish species in a tank without using the posted information placards. “A lot of fish species look very similar, but they could even nail the scientific names,” said Megan. “In that moment, I realized that my GoMRI and IUCN research had helped me become a part of this amazing group of scientists with incredible levels of focus, drive, and knowledge. I’m still learning, and I have never felt judged negatively for that. I can ask for help or advice from any member of the community, and they will take time out of their unbelievably busy schedules without complaint or expecting anything in return, just for the sake of science.”

Megan explained that, while the sciences can be intimidating, she has found that even experienced scientists struggle with and adjust their methods to overcome failures. “It may feel like there is an expectation that you will determine one single, exact answer to a question, but I’ve found that we often have to make situational judgement calls, since we are still trying to make our way toward those answers. There are so many ways to approach problems,” she said. Megan is applying to Ph.D. programs at ASU’s School of Sustainability, the first comprehensive degree-granting program in the United States that focuses on solutions to environmental, economic, and social challenges.

Praise for Megan

Dr. Polidoro praised Megan’s progress synthesizing and coding an enormous amount of data for over 1,600 fish species to complete their vulnerability rankings. She joked that she and Megan often briefly derail their research discussions to bond over their pet snakes, exchanging stories about their ball pythons, Peanut Butter and Steve, before jumping back into the science.

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Megan Woodyard and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals.

By Stephanie Ellis and Nilde Maggie Dannreuther. Contact sellis@ngi.msstate.edu for questions or comments.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies. An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research. All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available. The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. For more information, visit http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

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