Marine life invokes a love-of-life for one Ph.D. candidate

Originally from land-locked Cincinnati, Ohio, Elizabeth Lacey credits a family trip when she was 8-years-old to the beaches in California with sparking her interest in the oceanic world.

When she was 9, her aunt gave her a certificate of adoption for a manatee. Not too familiar with the species, Lacey had her mother take her to the library to research what it was and how it lived. Although she didn’t know it at the time, these events charted the course for her future.

“I told the librarian I loved nature. She took my request literally and looked up in the card catalog a book called ‘Biophilia’ by E.O. Wilson. It means ‘love of life,’” Lacey said. “I was 9 and overwhelmed by the writing, but I loved the descriptions and enthusiasm behind the message. It struck a cord with my love of being outdoors and this connection I’ve always felt to the ocean and living organisms.”

Lacey enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in 1999. As an undergraduate, her interest in marine biology exploded. She dedicated her research to coral reefs but wanted to expand her work to tropical coral reefs. She earned a bachelor’s degree in marine biology in 2003.

“I wanted to move to South Florida because I was bitten by the coral reef bug and wanted to learn as much as I could about them,” Lacey said. “They’re the underdogs of the ocean. They’re this crazy plant-animal combination of a species. Florida is the right place to study them. This is where I’ve been able to really get my feet wet and experience the challenges of being a scientist.”

With her kayak and scuba gear in tow, Lacey moved to South Florida. She earned a master’s degree in 2006 from Nova Southeastern University and then enrolled at FIU in 2007 as a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences. Lacey is currently working under James Fourqurean in the Seagrass Ecosystems Research Laboratory and Lidia Collado-Vides in the Marine Macroalgae Research Lab.

“When I met them, I saw how they encourage both undergrads and grads to have an active role in research,” Lacey said. “I saw how invested they are in their students, so I knew this was the place for me.”

Lacey’s doctoral dissertation, Herbivore and nutrient impact on primary producer assemblages in a tropical marine environment, has taken her to Akumal, Mexico almost a dozen times since 2008. Located south of Cancun, Akumal means “place of the turtles” in the Mayan language and is known for its wildlife and tourism. Her research examines the responses of primary producers, specifically macroalgae and seagrasses, to nutrient enrichment and overfishing by looking at consumer dynamics.

“Nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, are necessary for cell growth and health. They enter a system naturally but also because of human activity,” Lacey said. “Adding too many nutrients to the water causes an algal bloom. The algae reduces the health of seagrass and damages coral, which makes it easier for the algae to multiply on the surface of the reef. Too much of the algae can have negative consequences in both the coral and seagrass systems.”

Lacey explains that, herbivores, like sea urchins, have an important consumption role in reducing algal blooms. Some research suggests that, if this this population recovers, they can reduce macroalgal cover. Her dissertation studies the effects of long-spined sea urchins on coral reef recovery and emphasizes the need to educate local stakeholders on the importance of protecting them. Sea turtles require a healthy seagrass ecosystem to grow, survive and reproduce. By studying the response of seagrass to human disturbances, Lacey’s research also addresses the potential of health beds to supporting turtle populations.

“I’m happiest when I’m sharing my passion for education and conservation with others,” Lacey said. “The hardest part of my work is being confronted with people that don’t see how their actions can damage threatened ecosystems. I want to use my degrees to educate and inspire others to appreciate our oceans and the life in it. I’ve been calling myself a ‘marine biologist’ all these years, but I guess I’m truly a ‘biophilist’ at heart.”