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Student Spotlight: Melina Giakoumis Studies Some ‘Cool Critters’ in National Parks to Understand the Effects of Climate Change

By Lida Tunesi

A one-year Second Century Stewardship fellowship is giving Ph.D. student Melina Giakoumis (Biology) the opportunity to fuse two interests: marine conservation and science communication. Plus, she gets to spend the summer at three seashore parks in Massachusetts and Maine. 

Giakoumis will devote the next year to studying sea stars in intertidal ecosystems throughout the northeastern U.S. to understand and share with the public how these ecologically important species are responding to climate change. She is one of three students chosen for the fellowship, a partnership led by Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park, the National Park Service, and the National Park Foundation with support from the David Evans Shaw Family Foundation, that seeks to advance conservation and ecosystem science and enhance the stewardship of park resources.  

“I am so thrilled to have the opportunity to work on sea stars because I’ve always been interested in the ocean,” Giakoumis told The Graduate Center. “I grew up on coastlines, exploring tidepools, and I think they are very special ecosystems.”

After a pandemic-friendly, remote training period, Giakoumis will spend the summer between Acadia National Park, Cape Cod National Seashore, and Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, conducting Second Century Stewardship’s first multi-park project. She will look at sea stars from the Asterias genus as well as creatures that live alongside them, re-creating a study from 1979 to reveal population changes in the parks since then.

The study will help conservation biologists understand how sea stars are reacting to the changes in ocean chemistry, temperatures, and sea levels caused by climate change. Giakoumis will also track the incidence of Sea Star Wasting Disease on the Northern coast, the effects of which are unclear. 

Giakoumis explained the interest in sea stars. “Sea stars are considered ‘keystone species,’” she said, “which means they have a disproportionately large effect on their community.” Her study will also give scientists a model for studying other important species. Not to mention, they’re pretty neat animals. “Lots of people love finding a sea star,” she said. “They are very cool critters, and they are among the most closely related invertebrate to humans.”

Giakoumis started studying sea stars when she joined Professor Michael Hickerson’s (GC/City University, Biology) lab for her doctoral degree, but has lots of experience working with other animals. She received a master’s degree in conservation biology from Columbia University, then worked at the American Museum of Natural History where she used genomic information to track big cats like snow leopards and examined the genetic diversity of whale populations.

As part of this next adventure, Giakoumis, who is also a GC Sciences Fellow, will share her findings and the parks’ ecological stories with the public. She will receive training from the Schoodic Institute’s science communication specialist to decide on the best strategy for engagement.

“I am very excited about the science communication component of this fellowship,” Giakoumis said. “The intertidal area in Acadia National Park is a popular outdoor destination, which gives science communicators the opportunity to stimulate interest in these important regions as well as in invertebrates, a group that is not often considered a charismatic focus of conservation effort.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: MAY 10, 2021

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