Ecologist Spotlight: Alyssa Frederick

Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!

We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to Alyssa Frederick for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

Alyssa Frederick. Credit: Allan Helmick Photography (

Please state your current affiliation.

Alyssa: University of California, Irvine.

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

Alyssa: I study how climate change and disease impact abalone (which are large marine snails that people love to eat) physiology. Abalone used to support a huge fishery in California, but they were drastically overfished in the 1900s and then in the mid 1980’s a new disease appeared during a particularly strong El Niño. This disease, called withering syndrome, wiped out much of what was left after overfishing. The bacteria that causes this disease goes into the digestive system of abalone, where it basically shuts down digestion. One complicating factor is that warm temperatures seem to exacerbate the disease state. So in a cold year, even infected abalone might be ok. But if they get warm because of an El Niño or just generally warming water trends, they can start to express the disease. Let’s complicate things a little further – of the 7 species on our Californian coastline, all are infected but not all express the disease to the same extent, even during warm water events! So my research answers the following questions:

  • Why do different species of abalone respond differently to withering syndrome? I used phylogenetics to figure out that resistant species evolved independently from others.
  • What happens in the abalone digestive system during infection? I studied the gene expression of infected and healthy animals for this question, and I’m still working on the data.
  • Lastly, I am currently running an experiment to figure out what happens to the digestive system of red abalone during heat stress.

Now remember that heat stress caused more disease expression! So to try and tease apart those effects, I am studying a species of abalone that lives in New Zealand, called pāua. Pāua have never been exposed to the bacteria that causes withering syndrome, so they’re a perfect model system for comparing to our abalone in California that are all exposed to the disease. As I warm them up and study their digestive physiology, I can look at the effect of heat without the adding complication of the disease, and we begin to tease apart how these different stressors impact abalone.

I also do a lot of science advocacy, served on student government, completed a two-year climate action training program at UCI, and lobbied Congress for effective climate change legislation. I stay busy outside the lab still working on science issues!

Why is it important to study withering syndrome in abalone?

Alyssa: Withering syndrome hit abalone fast and hard. Two of the seven species in California have been listed as federally Endangered. All commercial fisheries are closed. The last recreational fishery in the state was closed in December. Abalone are on a scary path – will they be around in any sustainable populations in the wild in a few decades? It isn’t looking great, except for the fact that there are a few groups of amazing scientists working on research and breeding programs to bring them back from the brink. Understanding this disease, and how it interacts with other threats like climate change, overfishing, and other diseases is paramount for saving these species. And saving the abalone is important for many reasons. They’re important ecologically and they help maintain kelp forests. They’re a critical component of Native food traditions for coastal tribes where they are found. And the decline of every species in the anthropocene is alarming. Lots of talk has been happening around the 6th great extinction, the one caused by humans and our relentless demands on our planet. Research to save every single species from extinction is so critical, otherwise we continue to leave a legacy of destruction without an regard for guardianship, and I don’t want that to be my legacy.

What first interested you in ecology?

Alyssa: I’ve always loved the natural world and science, and I was lucky to grow up playing in the ocean. But when I started to take environmental classes in undergrad and my rosy view of the natural world was totally shattered. I think it was learning about coral bleaching that first made me realize that the time to act to save ecosystems was rapidly passing us by. I joined a lab to do research on corals and ended up studying pollution in mangroves on Guam, as an undergrad! Send any undergrad to study coastal ecosystems on a Pacific island, they’ll be hooked on marine science. I’m really interested in how people interact with their environments, and how we can most sustainably and extract from those ecosystems only what we need to survive.

What has inspired you in your career?

Alyssa: Resilience and resistance to climate change inspire me. Both in the non-human natural world and the human one. I am continuously inspired by people who fight for sustainability and preservation of the natural world, especially the many who do this with extremely limited resources. I’ve also been inspired by powerful women who are changing the face of science and academia to be friendlier to women.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

Alyssa: The first time I was ever in the Pacific was when I was taking a course on the Galapagos islands. One of our first snorkel trips, we had all divided into tiny boats, each with a guide. Somehow I got on the only boat without a professor and convinced the guide to take us beyond the reef. He found a favorite snorkel spot, jumped in, and we followed blindly. I watched him dive down and swim halfway into an underwater cave, and he waved us to follow. With stupid bravery, I did and came face to face with a sleeping nurse shark! It was a beautiful animal, but I wasn’t expecting it and swallowed half a gallon of seawater. Once I managed to recover, I was in awe of this beautiful animal and after that, I was obsessed with viewing any marine megafauna in their natural environment. I followed sea turtles around in the shallow lagoons. I was the first to jump in at a site with sea lions, which immediately started playing chicken with me, swimming with the mouths wide open towards my face and turning off at the last second. One stole my snorkel and it took me a good ten minutes of offering her pup a different toy (urchins, shells, seaweed) before the baby sea lion gave it up and moved on. On my first scuba dive there, I saw a shark as I was descending to the bottom, just me, the other divers, and this beautiful massive shark suspended in blue nothingness. It was the best two weeks because I was there to film and learn about these animals in their natural world, and what humans were doing to protect them.

Alyssa snorkeling. Credit: Alyssa Frederick.

What is a challenge that you faced as a student, young professional, or early faculty member and how did you work through it?

Alyssa: I’ve had the dreaded “all of the animals died” happen to me twice! It is the worst because it not only sets back work, but is also a huge blow for someone who cares about animals and their wellbeing. But I study climate stressors on animals, and sometimes they can’t cope. It’s both really sad (and keeps me up at night sometimes) but also a window into our future if we don’t do more about climate change. I remind myself that my research is necessary for helping us manage ecosystems in the future, and that all of these setbacks will lead to a useful result in the end. Then I take my dogs for a long walk, forget about work for a few hours, and get back to it with renewed energy!

You’ve been involved in research around the globe. What is one of your favorite places to work?

Alyssa: I love working on any island in the Pacific that I’ve been too. From the chilly waters of the Galapagos islands, to the warm sunny shores of Guam, to the windswept coastlines of Aotearoa. Even within an archipelago, the culture and ecosystems of each island are so unique and diverse, that its impossible to choose just one.

When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

Alyssa: Ha, this happens ALL the time. I chose a topic that was really difficult, so little is known about, and had never been studied before in my lab. So there’s a steep learning curve. Honestly, staying motivated can be really hard when there are lots of setbacks. When that happens, I reach out to others and take a different approach to learning while I regain the energy to tackle new problems. I spend time on outreach, photography, storytelling, reading, music, other things that are creative challenges but still productive. I go to museums and try to learn something new, or I reach out to colleagues and ask for feedback. Sometimes these challenges are just walls we hit, and we can keep trying to jump over a wall all we want but often going around it is the best option.

Tell us about the Turn of the Tide podcast.

Alyssa: I’m glad you asked! I was starting to enter one of those challenging stages from the previous question… I had just passed my advancement exam, and with any huge hurdle comes the inevitable lull. I was bored, I had been studying complex science problems for my exam and when it was over, I felt obviously relieved but also in a research rut. I think this is a really common experience because we put so much effort into quals, but once it’s over we’re just left getting back to the same old research we’ve always been doing. I was chatting with my partner about this as I was getting more involved in advocacy work, and he just suggested that this would be really well suited for a podcast. It was an aha! moment, honestly. I wanted more structured conversations about diversity issues, and places for women to talk about their research in a constructive, supportive environment. Thus, Turn of the Tide was born! I approached my friend Evelyn Valdez-Ward (who is amazing by the way and the strongest woman I know!) about co-hosting, and we refined our approach from there. Originally, we wanted to focus on science and science storytelling. But, being the social change advocates we are, it morphed into focusing a lot on diversity in STEM issues, justice, and intersections of these with climate change. We are working on pieces right now that highlight issues for women in STEM, or for marginalized communities most affected by climate change. We are also keeping it rather open-ended. For example, I’m using my airtime this spring to discuss fishery issues with abalone, including Native fishing rights and the colonization of coastal fishing. Evelyn has already, and continues to highlight issues for DACA students and her federal advocacy for that community. Then two other amazing women, Michelle Herrera and Linh Anh Cat, joined us as co-hosts. With such a diverse group of women, we’ve really having a fun and productive time coming up with stories and ideas for how we’re going to move forward with this platform. Turn of the the Tide has a lot of potential to grow into something great, and I hope women in science and our allies will enjoy listening and interacting with our show. We’re working on getting the balance of science and advocacy right as we move forward, because they’re both extremely important aspects of the work that we all do. If anyone would like to be one our show, we’re always interested in sharing our platform with other women.

What do you do in your “off” time?

Alyssa: I’ve been working a lot on photography recently, and learning to play the ukulele. When I’m not in the field like I am right now, I volunteer with a dog rescue and spend time with my own dogs and my partner. I’ve been working a lot on communication and storytelling platforms lately. I feel like science provides an overabundance of structure to my life, so I try to do unstructured, creative things in my free time. I’ve learned a ton of new crafts during my PhD as a result of this, like sewing, quilting, and I just started drawing. While I’m in the field, I’ve been spending every spare moment hiking, snorkeling, eating all the delicious foods, and listening to birdsong.

If you met a 10 year old who was interested in ecology, what would you say to encourage them?

Alyssa: I think it depends a lot on what they are interested in. Rather than say any one thing, I’d learn why they were interested in ecology and ask them questions about it. I want to hear from young students about what they love about nature and science. I try to help them turn that fascination into long-term interest by fostering an environment of creativity and exploration, even with students up through undergrad. I like to challenge students to think about how they would study something in their area of interest.

Scene: *You walk into a local coffee shop* What do you order?

Alyssa: If I’m in New Zealand, a flat white.  If I’m not in New Zealand, a flat white and I just prepare for the inevitable disappointment. Why is the coffee in NZ so amazing??

Alyssa holding a kiwi. Credit: Patrick Braciszewski.

Bonus: Are there any other interesting stories you would like to share?

Alyssa: When I was studying on my Fulbright in New Zealand, I volunteered with the Remutaka Forest Trust Park. It’s a group of volunteers from the Wellington community who maintain the wild kiwi birds in the surrounding bush, and manage trap lines for invasive mammals. One day I emailed someone in the Trust who offered to take me and my partner up into the forest to track a kiwi bird that hadn’t been detected in a while. They wanted to make sure he was safe and that his chicks were being cared for. So we set off on a hike, and it was a beautiful day. But we couldn’t find the bird, the radio antennae wasn’t picking up the signal. Finally, after hours of walking, we got a beep! Then the real fun began. We climbed down the face of this huge hill, covered in native forest, totally off trail. It felt like ages to get to the burrow (a hollow log, how much does this sound like a kid’s fairytale??) but when we finally did and peered inside, there was our kiwi!! And he had a chick safe and sound with him as well. It was an amazing experience, and I even got to hold the baby kiwi chick as dad was being checked up on. These birds are so rare – they exist only in New Zealand, and they are being threatened by introduced mammals. There are a bunch of groups fighting to save them from decline, and they’re doing a pretty fantastic job, but they’re still really rare birds! Most locals don’t even get to see them in the wild, and it doesn’t help that they are nocturnal. This was one of those extremely rare conservation moments where you realize that all the crap you grind through at work is totally worth it, and it helps that kiwi chicks are just about the cutest little birds in the world.