Diving back into world-class research after a short break

Find out how a returning fellowship grant awarded by The Low Carbon Energy and Environment Network Wales allowed Dr Sindia Sosdian to expand her network and specialisms.

From ancient marine fossils to modern Malaysian clams, Cardiff University researcher and surfer, Sindia Sosdian explores the ocean throughout the world and time.

Her passion for the ocean is more than just a hobby; as a researcher she’s focussed on the health of coral reef systems and how corals cope with changes in environment such as warming and land based pollution over time.
After taking two spells of maternity leave, Sindia was able to take advantage of the research networks returning fellowship scheme to propel her back to the fore of her research area; a scheme which Sindia believes was vital to enabling her to develop and diversify.

“I benefitted dramatically from the returning fellowship grant. Taking time out from teaching and having money set aside for travel meant that I was able to forge ties in Fiji and Malaysia which have led to new samples, underpinning novel research as well enabling various studentships and even exploring a new technology in my lab”.

Aside from the obvious benefits, it’s the intangible benefits of this sort of support that Sindia cites as invaluable.

“It was also the value of the fellowship itself. Someone thought my work and time was critical for marine science”

“Having a pause in teaching to get my feet back on the ground was a game changer for me. I felt valued as a member of the academic community which boosted my confidence and allowed me the flexibility to pursue my research with renewed vigour”.

Sindia's study species, Porites lutea are long-lived, enormous corals that are integral to the framework of nearshore reefs. With collaborators in Fiji, her research team are working to determine how local and global environmental stressors might be impacting them.  

Coral reefs are able to thrive using the energy produced by the algae living symbiotically in their structures. Such algae require light from the surface to penetrate down through the water to stimulate the chemical reaction of photosynthesis to meet their energy requirements. The by-products of the photosynthesis are vital building blocks for the corals themselves, who have in turn provided a safe shelter for the photosynthesising algae. In the ‘coral bleaching’ climate change effect, the water surrounding the reef has become too warm for the algae to survive longterm, which in turn leads to coral death.

Given the importance of sunlight in this exchange, Sindia and her research group are specifically looking at how the natural sediment in cloudy water, where light penetrates less easily, impacts the life of a coral community.

Having collected coral cores during an expedition in 2017, samples are continuing to be used for analysis by Sindia’s PhD student Ana as she extracts 3D images and collects data on their chemical composition.

“Having the time and budget to go to Fiji on fieldwork has directly led to samples which were essential to a pHD position in my lab. The very existence of these samples helped to underpin grant applications to further our work. It was also during this fieldwork that I met and partnered with Wildlife Conservation Society Fiji”

Sindia’s lab is now able to apply their expertise on corals to the giant clams of Malaysia which, similar to corals, grow in symbiosis with marine algae.

“Being able to attend UK-based conferences put me in touch relevant researchers working in Malaysia too. Directly because of this networking I became co-Principal Investigator on a Natural Environment Research Council funded programme; diversifying my lab to include clams in our research and employing a new laser technology, embedding a new avenue in the Cardiff University repertoire”.

Interestingly, giant clams deposit daily growth increments, allowing researchers to count their age in a similar concept to counting tree rings. Using the mass spectrometry technique honed working with corals, the team were able to examine the chemical composition of the clams daily growth increments to investigate the daily environmental conditions they had been growing under.  

Kimberley Mills is using the samples collected by Sindia and the Malaysia + UK Science crew, a position and dataset which Sindia directly attributes to the opportuities afforded by the Returning Fellowship programme.

Amazingly, Kim’s findings show that clams which grow in murky water are able to grow at the same rate as those growing in clear water. This is down to their ability to switch between using energy derived from the symbiotic algae, to feeding directly from the water column. Such flexibility in feeding behaviour may be key in their survival in an ever-changing reef environment, perhaps preventing them from suffering the same fate as the bleached corals elsewhere.

With Sindia living and working in South Wales, but researching tropical corals and clams she is quick to draw comparisons from her research into coral ecosystems with her surfing exploits in the “murky” Bristol Channel, where the resilient honeycomb worm can be found as a member of a dynamic, turbid estuary. It seems that no matter where you are on the planet, dynamism may be the key to survival in a challenging world.

Hear Sindia’s quick ocean acidification overview video with sound (in English).


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