Scripps Student Spotlight: Julia Chavarry

Biological oceanography PhD student researches the ecological role of gelatinous zooplankton in marine food webs


Julia Chavarry is a fifth-year biological oceanography PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Chavarry is originally from Woodbridge, N.J., and attended Johns Hopkins University where she received her undergraduate degree with a double major in earth and planetary sciences and behavioral biology. She is currently a student in oceanographer Anela Choy’s lab. Chavarry is the recipient of the San Diego Fellowship through UC San Diego, the Mary M. Yang Graduate Fellow for Environmental Stewardship through the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps, and the Community Engagement Fellowship through the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at UC San Diego.


explorations now (en): Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Julia Chavarry (JC): Scripps Institution of Oceanography has an exceptional doctoral program with world-renowned researchers who are focused on answering some of science’s most pressing questions. As a prospective graduate student, I was interested in how humans and the ocean influence one another. I recognized the high degree of collaborative and interdisciplinary research being conducted at Scripps. I knew this style of research would be conducive to my own interests in human-ocean interactions. 


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

JC: Broadly, I’m interested in the role of zooplankton in open-ocean food webs. Zooplankton are a diverse group of animals that include crustaceans, mollusks, gelatinous organisms, and other invertebrates. They’re akin to “sea bugs” and serve as the primary trophic link between primary producers in the ocean such as algae and higher trophic level species like fish. 

My first research project described how often anchovy encounters plastic pollution relative to their natural zooplankton prey. Now, I primarily focus on describing the ecological role of gelatinous zooplankton or “jellies” in marine food webs. Gelatinous zooplankton are a taxonomically diverse group of animals that includes mollusks, medusae, chordates, and more. Many gelatinous zooplankton are more than 90% water. Their high water content makes them fragile and difficult for scientists to collect and identify. Over the past two decades, scientists have learned that gelatinous zooplankton are consumed by a wide variety of predators, including sea birds, tuna, salmon, and lobsters. As consumers themselves, gelatinous zooplankton eat a diversity of marine plants and animals. Gelatinous zooplankton also play an important role in transporting carbon from the surface to the deep ocean. Alongside other members in the Choy Lab, I am characterizing the distribution and role of gelatinous zooplankton in marine food webs across the deep ocean. Our work will serve as a foundation for understanding how gelatinous zooplankton impact marine food webs and carbon sequestration.


en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?

JC: I had the privilege of growing up in a family that could prioritize learning. I spent my childhood reading in the library, digging up the backyard looking for dinosaur fossils, and going to museums with my mom. My scientific interests varied for a long time, ranging from geology to astrophysics, but I was most intrigued by oceanography. I recognized the connections between the ocean and people and was interested in the questions being answered in biological oceanography. 

Here at Scripps, I have had many wonderful opportunities to go out to sea. During my time in the field, I noticed an abundant animal group that is poorly researched across the deep sea — gelatinous zooplankton. I quickly became interested in the environmental conditions and food resources that support the high abundance of gelatinous zooplankton throughout the global ocean. 


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.

JC: My day-to-day is quite variable. I typically focus my attention each day on one major component of my research — reading literature, data analysis, writing, or lab work. This is interspersed with scientific seminars, meetings with colleagues to discuss my research, and aiding other lab members with their work. 


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?

JC: Going out to sea is by far the most exciting part of my work. Our lab is researching the deep sea, a region of the ocean that extends thousands of meters below the sea surface. The deep sea is seldom sampled, so we’re never entirely sure what animals we’ll find. Being at sea also facilitates an opportunity to connect with exceptional scientists and experts in the field, providing a collaborative space to talk about science.


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

JC: My mom was a first-generation college student who not only graduated from college but also succeeded in becoming a medical doctor. Both her perseverance in her own life and her unwavering belief that I would succeed in science were strong drivers for me to pursue a scientific career. Anand Gnadesikan was my advisor when I was an undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University. In addition to teaching me foundational knowledge about the ocean, he also provided a lot of personal encouragement and support that helped me push past academic obstacles. Finally, my current advisor Anela Choy has been paramount in my development as a scientist. She has dedicated significant energy and time to helping me develop my scientific knowledge and research skills.


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

JC: Being a PhD student is both fun and challenging because there isn’t a lot of clear structure. This can be beneficial because it allows me to work when I’m most efficient and shift my focus between tasks as needed. However, the lack of structure can also be a challenge for time management, especially at a university where there are so many exciting seminars to attend and student groups to join. Learning how to balance my time has been a skill I’ve begun to and will continue to develop.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

JC: After graduation, I would like to continue researching the ecological role of gelatinous zooplankton as a postdoctoral scholar. Currently, I’m most interested in research investigating how the traits of gelatinous zooplankton –how they feed, how they move, adaptations for escaping predators and capturing prey, etc.– affect both what they eat and what eats them, the energetic contributions of gelatinous zooplankton to marine food webs, and the role of gelatinous zooplankton in carbon sequestration. Long term, my goal is to become a professor who engages students from diverse backgrounds in the marine sciences.

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