A Scientist's Life: Ryan Hechinger

Marine biologist considers parasites to study broad ecological questions

Ryan Hechinger is a marine biologist who joined Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in October 2014. Hechinger’s main research focus is to reveal the role of parasites in ecosystems.

explorations now: What do you do for a living?

Ryan Hechinger: I'm a research scientist and a professor. The scientist part means that I work to unravel some of the mysteries of nature. I specifically focus on how species interact with each other and their environment. How they make their living. That’s ecology. My main trick is that I put parasites into the picture. Considering parasites is not only useful for understanding them better; it’s also better for understanding how nature works. Parasites are a massive component of biodiversity. If you count all the species of the world, half of them might be parasitic, maybe more.

I also advise and instruct students – instruction is the "professor" part – whether they be graduates, undergraduates, or postdocs.

en: Why did you come to Scripps?

RH: Scripps was pretty much the only place that I was considering a move to from UC Santa Barbara. It's a wonderful academic environment that is conducive to my lab's main field research, which mostly occurs in estuaries. Scripps also provides a great place for me to expand my research into other marine ecosystems – given that I'm surrounded by excellent colleagues who work in those ecosystems.

en: what are some of the methods/tools you use in your work?

RH: Most of our work happens in estuaries, where land and often fresh water meet the ocean. One reason we like estuaries is they are somewhat defined ecosystems. You know where their boundaries are. That means we can sample an entire ecosystem and talk about things at the ecosystem level. We can use estuaries as data points and look at cross-ecosystem types of analyses and understand how ecosystems work at a larger scale than is easily achieved in other ecosystems.

A lot of our work involves getting wet and muddy in the field counting and weighing all kinds of animals and plants. We also do a lot of work in the laboratory, working with aquaria and microscopes. All this is about making careful observations of nature and getting data to test theory. Having solid, testable theory is perhaps the most important tool. It represents our understanding of things and what we pit reality against. Theory is what we refine to improve our understanding of how nature works.

en: What are some of your main research questions and goals?

RH: I have two overarching goals. One is to reveal the role of parasites in ecosystems. This involves studies on the impacts of parasites at small scales – for example, how they affect individual hosts – and at large scales, such as how much energy flows through parasites compared to predators in an ecosystem.

The second overarching goal is to use parasites to enhance general ecological and evolutionary science. This means tackling fundamental questions about what keeps population size in check, how energy flows in food webs, and how ecosystems are shaped. I really like to use parasites to better test basic questions – ones that apply to all life forms. Parasites help us figure out whether we have found the right rules concerning how nature works.

One of the most important things about science that I think we all need to appreciate more is that science is set up to question itself and to continually test its assumptions.

A lot of times people might think fundamental research might be somewhat worthless if it isn’t clearly tackling an applied problem. People should understand that a lot of the things around us that we see – wireless transmitters or GPS systems or microwaves or whatever – almost all of these things are only made possible because of some fundamental research that was done for some other reason. The scientists doing the research did not necessarily have a clue about what the downstream applications might be.

In our country, the main source of funding for fundamental research is through the National Science Foundation, the NSF. But the funding to the NSF is like chicken scraps, something like less than three percent of our government’s annual spending. So I think one of the most important things for our society to do is to put more resources into fundamental research. It’s better for our country, and better for the world.

What’s important about ecology? Well, ecology is about understanding how species interact and how ecosystems work. As humans, we are impacting species and ecosystems. We’re impacting the entire world. Whatever our goal is with those ecosystems, with the world – whether we want to extract the maximum amount of resources possible in the shortest period of time or for the longest period of time, whether we want to conserve species or destroy them, whatever we want to do – it is only a good thing if we understand how ecosystems work. And that’s what ecological science is about.

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