UCSC Graduate Student Finalist in Dance Your PhD

October 26, 2017

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Still from "The Sea Star's Lament." You can watch the video and vote at the Dance Your PhD website.

The Annual Dance Your Ph.D. contest brings graduate research off of the page and on its feet as students demonstrate their work through dance. 

This year UC Santa Cruz Ecology and Evolutionary Biology graduate student Monica Moritsch has made it to the finals in the Dance Your Ph.D. contest with her piece: The Sea Star's Lament: Intertidal Community Consequences of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

The sixth-year Ph.D. candidate's video showcases mussels and sea stars - represented by Santa Cruz and south Bay Area swing dancers, along with fellow graduate students from the UCSC Long Marine Laboratory - demonstrating the territorial, intertidal relationship between their species.

What happens to the mussels and other species when the sea star population dies off? This is what Moritsch studies at UC Santa Cruz, and the reason why she chose to study at the Santa Cruz university in particular.

"I really wanted to study the ecology of intertidal invertebrates. The species that live in tide pools are fascinating to me," Moritsch said. "I chose to come to UCSC specifically because the Raimondi lab had a lot of expertise and resources for this type of research. Santa Cruz is also very close to a variety of intertidal research sites while still having all the amenities of a small city, so the geographic location was another draw for me."

The contest is run by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and brings an international group of submissions to their judging panel; finalists are put up for public voting. Other UCSC graduate students have participated in the Dance Your Ph.D. contest in the past; Moritsch's entry is the first UCSC submission to make it to the finals.

Moritsch learned about the contest as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. "One of the grad students in the [swing dance] club made a video for this contest and had many of us participate. It was a very fun experience and I always kept it in the back of my mind as something I wanted to do for myself when I got to grad school."

Though the video displays one aspect of her research on the Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, Moritsch believes there is more for the public to know about the plight of these tidepool residents. "We don't have a clear cause for the disease yet. Researchers identified a virus associated with the disease presence, but causality was never proven. A number of environmental factors could influence the appearance and spread of the disease as well." 

"Sea stars in the Monterey Bay area are beginning to recover," she said. "We don't know how long it will take for them to reach the numbers and sizes of adults that were present prior to the disease, but many local sites are beginning to get close in terms of numbers. From an ecological standpoint, return to the sizes we had before matters because it influence how much the sea stars eat."

If you're looking for further information about the syndrome and how it has affected intertidal ecology, The Sea Star Wasting Syndrome website offers a wide array of information. Maintained by the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) program, the site showcases research and findings made by EEB researchers and research through MARINe - the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network. There are examples of sea stars affected by the syndrome, maps of affected areas, and work being done to understand this disease by university researchers and citizen scientists.

You can vote for Moritsch's Dance Your Ph.D. entry on the Science Magazine website: click the checkmark on the video thumbnail image, and click "Submit Vote" on the pop-up window. Voting ends at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on October 30, 2017.

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