A Journey from Intern to Doctoral Student

Kevin Wong samples coral larvae for molecular and physiological analyses.

Kevin Wong grew up in British Columbia, Canada, an area where snowy mountains, deep forests, and a nearby sea suit people like him with a love for the natural world.  He took his enjoyment of the outdoors to college at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, where he intended to study environmental engineering. However, it was after changing majors in his second year—and an auspicious Internet search introduced him to BIOS—that he realized his true passion lay in research aimed at determining the impacts of human activities on the environment.

In July, Wong, now 23, returned to BIOS for his fourth year to begin conducting preliminary research for his doctoral thesis. With funding from a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, the BIOS Graduate Grant-in-Aid program, and a BIOS University Programs scholarship, Wong is investigating the rapid acclimatization of corals to future climate change conditions, specifically thermal stress.

This summer, he’s looking at the effects of parental history on the ability of corals within the same generation to withstand heat stress and how this can subsequently alter the fitness of the next generation.  By combining physiological measurements with analyses of heritable genetic traits, Wong hopes to uncover the overall mechanisms behind the response of corals when experiencing a temperature-induced disturbance, including rising ocean temperatures.

He credits BIOS scientists in part for his rise through the ranks from undergraduate intern to doctoral researcher.  He said BIOS faculty members Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley and Samantha de Putron, along with Hollie Putnam, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island (URI) who is now his doctoral advisor, trusted him to run aspects of their projects and make experimental design decisions.

“This,” he said “is definitely the most exciting part of my journey so far.”

His path to BIOS began in 2014, when, as a third year student, he began looking for internship opportunities to enhance his coursework in environmental sciences, biology, and chemistry. Wong “stumbled across BIOS” during an Internet search, and, in a decision that would pay dividends for years to come, he applied for a summer internship through the Canadian Associates of BIOS (CABIOS) program, which provides scholarships to Canadian students and students enrolled in Canadian colleges and universities for summer courses and research internships at BIOS.

That summer, Wong spent 12 weeks at BIOS working with de Putron, a marine biologist and coral ecologist, investigating the role of temperature and light on the growth and survivorship of juvenile mustard hill corals from two different reef zones.

“That was my first experience with research and I wanted to see and learn the methods and techniques used, to get a taste of what research was like,” Wong said. “My mentor gave me a lot of freedom to just get on with the project, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes, which is an essential component of scientific research.”

During that time he also earned his scientific diver certification through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences—a prerequisite for many science courses, internships, and programs of study that require students to use diving as a research tool. Inspired by this experience, Wong applied for—and received—funding the following year from CABIOS that covered both a month-long internship and his participation in the BIOS Coral Reef Ecology course.

“Kevin stood out in terms of his academic ability, confidence, and reliability in the field and lab, not to mention his team spirit,” recalled de Putron. “It was an easy decision to recommend his return to BIOS the following year as an intern, then later as a course teaching assistant.”

During his internship with Goodbody-Gringley, a reef ecologist, Wong assisted a master’s student from Clark University investigating the “Deep Reef Refugia Hypothesis,” which suggests that corals living on deeper, mesophotic reefs could potentially repopulate shallow reefs following major disturbances, such as a storm or loss of coral from bleaching.

Wong was able to use the results of these experiments in 2015 for both his undergraduate thesis project at Carleton University and professional presentations at the Benthic Ecology Meeting in Maine and the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Hawaii.

“Attending these conferences gave me insight into the marine science research field and the diversity of topics related to coral,” Wong said. “And I was totally ‘nerding out’ because I got to meet all of these rock star scientists whose papers I’d been reading over the years.”

While at ICRS, Wong had the opportunity to interview with Putnam in URI’s Biological and Environmental Sciences doctoral program.

“It was clear to me upon discussing his background and goals that Kevin’s time at BIOS has provided him with a wealth of experiences including hands-on research, critical thinking, publication, mentoring and technical expertise, resulting in a skill set that is rare in an early stage graduate student,” Putnam said. “The depth of discussion we were able to have in his interview made it clear he is an outstanding early career researcher with immense talent and promise, and this impression has only been reinforced in my subsequent interactions with him.”

Between applying to URI and learning of his acceptance, Wong spent six months at BIOS in 2016 as a teaching assistant for the Oceans and Human Health course, the summer and fall Coral Reef Ecology courses, and the Marine Biology and Oceanography Research course. During this time he was also funded by the PADI Foundation and the BIOS Grant-in-Aid program for a second research project with Goodbody-Gringley comparing the reproductive ecology and life history of mustard hill coral from patch, rim, and upper mesophotic reef sites around Bermuda.

“As a mentor, I like to give my students freedom to explore their ideas and modify their experimental design,” Goodbody-Gringley said. “Some students flourish under this type of guidance and Kevin is one of those students. It’s rewarding to see how far he has come and I can’t wait to see how his career develops.”

Wong plans to present the results from this collaboration at the European Coral Reef Symposium in December later this year, and he is currently working with Goodbody-Gringley to prepare the research for submission to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.