As a marine ecologist, Stacy Zhang ’12 says she studies the obvious. But that’s not as simple as it may sound.
When we see fish swimming past us at the beach, we simply see fish in the water and then return to our vacationing. Zhang, on the other hand, examines what that fish is doing, why they’re doing it there and what it means to all the pieces of the ecosystem around it.
“You can see patterns in nature with your naked eye. You can observe behaviors, but you don’t necessarily know what’s causing it,” she says. “That is our goal. You’re just trying to explain the obvious. It’s more complicated than you would expect.”
Studying the obvious also means that Zhang often finds herself at the edge of crisis science, researching and combating a pressing issue happening in real-time with consequences already being felt. As a postdoctoral researcher studying fish biodiversity and coastal habitat restoration at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, Zhang is currently on the frontlines of helping navigate challenges facing North Carolina’s coast and the impacts they have on those who depend on marine habitats.
Zhang calls it an “exciting and mildly terrifying” opportunity, but it’s one she’s been working toward for more than a decade, dating back to when she was an undergraduate at Carolina.
Getting her feet wet
As a Carolina undergraduate majoring in biology, Zhang knew that she didn’t want to be a medical doctor. Since her time at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, she knew the environmental sciences were her future.
“I came to Carolina knowing that I love environmental science,” she says. “I wanted to be able to get my feet wet or at least go traipsing around a forest.”
That opportunity arose late in her junior year when she applied for the Institute for the Environment’s Morehead City Field Site program. The semester-long program provides Carolina students experience conducting independent research at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences and learning from the institute’s faculty.
Supported by her Carolina Covenant scholarship, Zhang spent the fall semester of her senior year in the field site program, working alongside experienced marine sciences researchers and conducting her own work on the formation of oyster reefs. The semester, she says, taught her the ropes of marine ecology and set the direction of her research career.
“I love doing science because it feels like you’re on the edge of discovering something new, however small that is. Combining that with the ability to give something back is a huge motivating force for me,” she says. “I love it. I absolutely love it. Even if it means doing something tedious like changing aquarium water day in and day out.”
Zhang spent two years after graduating from Carolina working in marine labs as a technician — including a year back at IMS — before returning to school to earn her doctorate in marine science and conservation from Duke University.
Last year, she returned to IMS as a postdoctoral researcher in Joel Fodrie‘s lab, where she has continued to study the North Carolina coast and research fish biodiversity — a critical topic for North Carolinians and the state’s economy.
Addressing North Carolina’s coastal challenges
North Carolina’s wild commercial fishing industry is a nearly $300 million enterprise. Any change to a coastal habitat — from hurricane damage to warming waters — can change the entire dynamic of the ecosystem, impacting the bottom line for a fishery.
Zhang is tracking those changes.
The marine ecosystem, she says, isn’t much different than a forest. When human activity destroys a forest, the ecosystem is out of balance and animals are displaced. Understanding how marine ecosystems, such as seagrass beds and oyster reefs, are being damaged and the ramifications are crucial to keeping a balance.
“So many of the commercial and recreationally important fishes that we rely on spend their youth in seagrass beds for protection before they grow to the size where they can migrate out of the inlet as adults, and we catch them offshore,” she says. “Even then, we catch a lot of adult flounder, red drum and tons of shrimp in estuarine waters, and all of those species rely in part on seagrass beds.”
Zhang’s research has looked not only at how damage to seagrass beds caused by hurricanes temporarily affects the fish communities in the area but also at ways to restore the habitats by tapping into positive interactions between organisms like clams and oysters that allow seagrass beds to grow. Thriving seagrass beds create flourishing ecosystems of fish.
“Just like no person is an island, no seagrass bed is an island,” she said. “In order to survive, you rely on the people around you to help you, and for a seagrass bed, you rely on the clams that live within you and the tiny shrimps that eat the algae on top of you.
“It’s all interconnected. Baitfish then eat the small shrimps and algae. Larger fishes, like the ones we’re interested in catching for food, consume those baitfishes.”
Zhang is also actively studying how fish diversity across the Atlantic Coast — from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine — is shifting because of warming waters. Zhang wants to see if fish that are typically found farther south are making their way into more northern waters, changing the diversity of fish in our estuaries.
Understanding these challenges protects our coastline and helps researchers create a balance between preservation and commercial function. It’s that overlap between science and helping the community and local fishers, Zhang said, that she loves about her career and keeps her studying the obvious.
“The oceans are such an important and vast environment, and our near-shore, coastal ecosystems are so valuable,” she says. “It’s really about wanting to protect these habitats but also recognizing that they’re working waters. We need that happy medium of making sure that we have these ecosystems for the future and that they’re able to still provide those benefits for society.”