Scripps Student Spotlight: Orion McCarthy

Marine biology PhD student studies how coral reefs in Maui are changing over time in response to climate change

Originally from Takoma Park, Md., fifth-year PhD student Orion McCarthy is studying marine biology with a focus on coral reef ecology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Prior to graduate school at Scripps, McCarthy studied at the University of Maryland and received a bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolution with a minor in geography. He is currently studying how coral reefs change over time using 3D imaging technology in marine biologist Jennifer Smith’s lab. McCarthy also authored a study, titled “Identifying the drivers of structural complexity on Hawaiian coral reefs,” which was published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series.


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

Orion McCarthy (OM): Well first off, the name recognition of Scripps is pretty powerful, so Scripps was one of the first graduate programs on my radar. I got sucked in by the pioneering research being conducted by the 100 Island Challenge and the Smith and Sandin Labs, which use 3D models to study how coral reefs change over time. I was enticed by the ability to work at the cutting edge of new technology and conservation, as well as the opportunity to participate in scientific diving expeditions around the world. Scripps did not disappoint, and these experiences have been among the highlights of my time. 


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

OM: I study how coral reefs in Maui are changing over time in response to global climate change and local human impacts. I use 3D coral reef models that are reconstructed using a technology called large-area imaging. By stitching together thousands of 2D pictures into a 3D model, this technology allows us to conduct virtual fieldwork back in the lab to answer research questions that wouldn’t have been practical to answer before. We revisit sites year after year and use the resulting 3D models to visualize change over time, from coral growth to the impact of disturbance events such as marine heat waves or tropical storms. My research aims to use 3D reef models from Maui to quantify the drivers of coral reef structural complexity at different scales, identify factors responsible for benthic community change following disturbance, and assess the acclimatization potential of corals to heat stress. On a broader level, my research also aims to assess the barriers that conservation practitioners face to using large-area imagery so that the technology can hopefully become more accessible in the future. 


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

OM: I’ve been interested in marine life and conservation since I was a child, but my interest in coral reefs specifically sparked when I studied abroad in Australia as an undergraduate. Situated at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland, I had access to the awe-inspiring Great Barrier Reef, as well as scientific leaders in the fields of coral reef science and marine conservation. That experience ignited my desire to become a scientific diver who conducts conservation research and set me on a path toward becoming a graduate student at Scripps. 

Orion McCarthy marks the edge of a long-term monitoring site during an annual field
work trip to Maui in 2019. Researchers from Dr. Jen Smith’s lab at Scripps has revisited the same coral reefs in Maui since 2014 to document change over time via large area imaging technology.

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

OM: There is no typical day for a Scripps graduate student, which is part of what makes it such an exciting place to be! Some days I’m coding or conducting virtual fieldwork using 3D coral reef models, while on other days I’m browsing the literature and writing sections of my thesis. In between meetings with my advisor and collaborators, I also volunteer as a diver in the Birch Aquarium kelp tank (which, in my opinion, is the best dive spot in San Diego)! Layered on top of these more routine activities, I’ve also been fortunate enough to go into the field occasionally (i.e., Maui, Palmyra Atoll) to conduct my own research and help lab mates and other colleagues conduct their research. 


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

OM: One of the things that I find most rewarding about being at Scripps is the ability to work at the cutting edge of technology, science, and conservation. The Smith and Sandin Labs at Scripps are leaders in the field of coral reef ecology and are among the early adopters of large-area imaging technology. With access to incredible fieldwork opportunities and global datasets, the research opportunities in these labs truly feel limitless. By working directly with leaders in the large area imaging space, I’ve had the opportunity to help shape the development of this technology and its dissemination to the broader marine science and conservation communities. I realize that those opportunities are special, and I never expected to have such freedom and agency over my research as a graduate student. 


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

OM: One of the Smith Lab’s former PhD students, Dr. Jill Harris, was instrumental in helping me get to this point in my career. I worked with her at the World Wildlife Fund while she was a postdoc and I was an intern. She taught me a lot about conducting research and exposed me to applied conservation science, which helped focus my long-term research interests and career trajectory. She also exposed me to the Smith Lab at Scripps and served as an incessant cheerleader throughout the arduous graduate school application process. I also owe much of my progress to another former Smith Lab PhD student, Dr. Emily Kelly, who initiated our lab’s long-term monitoring program in Maui. Without her hard work and foresight, much of my current research wouldn’t be possible.


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

OM: While fieldwork is exciting, it can also be incredibly challenging. Our lab works long hours when we are in the field, and the tasks we do (i.e. diving and boating) can be physically demanding (especially for someone like me who gets seasick). Aside from the physical challenges, fieldwork requires a high level of forethought, organization, and flexibility to be successful. For example, before each trip we need to make sure that we submit research permits months in advance, plan our itinerary, book flights, secure a research vessel, pack all the necessary gear, and coordinate with our partners in Maui. But amidst all this careful planning, we also need to be ready to change plans at the last minute if and when something breaks or goes awry. These challenges are far from insurmountable though, and I’ve been fortunate enough to lead several field expeditions to Maui, which have all been great experiences and growth opportunities.  


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

OM: I don’t have any concrete plans yet, but my ideal next step would be to work for an environmental non-profit conducting research on the effectiveness of different conservation interventions. I want to help shape the field of marine conservation writ large, and applied conservation research seems like an effective way to achieve this goal. Down the road, I could also see myself working for a foundation or funding agency to help influence the trajectory of marine conservation at a high level.


You can find McCarthy on Twitter @OrionMcCarthy.

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