Photo by: Heather J. McClelland
A native of Florida, Reagan developed a fascination for algae blooms as an undergraduate studying abroad at the University of Queensland in Australia. She continued her passion for ocean science at Texas A&M, earning a master’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and her PhD in Oceanography.
She moved to Baton Rouge in 2014 and worked as an assistant professor in LSU’s School of Renewable Natural Resources. Today she is a research ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, researching phytoplankton ecology with a special focus on global climate change and harmful algal species that produce a variety of toxins.
Her research is uncovering the massive impacts some of the planet’s tiniest organisms have on humans and the environment.
We recently chatted with Reagan ahead of her TEDxLSU talk on March 23 to discuss her research, her life and what it was like swimming with whale sharks in Mozambique. Read some highlights of the conversation below.
Why should we be studying harmful algal blooms?
Because they are awesome. Phytoplankton in general get a raw deal — no one really thinks about them or cares about them, though they are just as important as trees and in some cases more so. Harmful algal species are just a subset of phytoplankton, and what sets them apart is their ability to cause detrimental effects to the ecosystem. Only a handful produce toxins — that we are aware of. It’s the toxins that make them unique, and harmful to human, wildlife and ecosystem health.
What is your favorite part of you work?
I love watching students that were not passionate about the subject in the beginning become passionate over the semester based on the knowledge that I’m conveying. It’s amazing to see the light bulb go on and someone understand and make the connections needed to fully grasp ecosystem sciences.
In addition, an important aspect of my work is related to human health, which is why harmful algae are important to understand and recognize their presence. Being able to identify toxins or relate environmental conditions to toxin production and then relay that information to management in order to inform people of potential illness is what drives my work.
Tell us about your work in Mozambique and your association with All Out Africa.
All Out Africa is an amazing organization, one of their main goals is to educate individuals around the world about natural resource conservation in Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana and South Africa. The key to this is working with individuals in each country — so it is not South Africans coming into Mozambique teaching and promoting conservation, but Mozambicans.
In 2016, I bought my first study abroad class — only 3 students — over to Tofo and started a research project looking at the harmful algal bloom species Pseudo-nitzshia, which was mentioned to be in the area through other research, although not explored further.
I could not do this work with out All Out Africa’s support. Without their support and partnership, it would be difficult to relay the findings of the work back to the people of Mozambique, as I mentioned earlier, due to human health aspect of working with toxic algae, that relationship and communication is key. Working with people on the ground that are vested in the work but also curious has been key to my success.
What was it like to swim with whale sharks?
It’s surreal. I think that’s the best way to put it. Most of the whale sharks in the area are juvenile so not fully grown — yet they are still huge. You feel so small next to them, though they are so peaceful swimming and basically ignoring you in the water. Watching them feed is my favorite part because they have all these cleaner fish hanging out with them. As a phytoplankton ecologist, I often have to pinch myself when I get the chance to swim with them or with Giant Manta Rays, which are highly impressive as well.
What is your philosophy or approach when performing research in a community?
Working with individuals within the community is important. When working with other harmful algal bloom (HAB) species within the US, I always consulted local members of the fishing community or general public. This approach can help you understand the history of the area and where blooms maybe occurring but also helps build a relationship with the people within the community where you can relay information back. Without the help of people on the ground and the community “buying in” to what you are studying, biological oceanographic studies would be hindered due to lack of local knowledge. This is true in developed world, but is of utmost importance in the developing world.
Many studies and researchers in developing countries come into a country, do a study and move on. This can be do to a number of factors including lack of funding, lack of access, graduate students finishing projects and so on. Due to the short time scale of these projects, most researchers aren’t able to develop long-term relationships with the community. The issue with this is that very little knowledge is passed on to the community in which the study was completed, this in many ways is a helicopter researcher.
I have made it a point in the last three years to build relationships with the people of Praia do Tofo, such as Peri Peri Divers, in addition to working with All Out Africa, who has a constant presences within the area. I can not be present in the community all the time therefore I relay on these relationships to transfer the knowledge and information back to the people of Tofo.
What do you do to relax and unplug from your work?
Lego’s with my kid. I love to organize them, its my zen time.
To learn more about Reagan or about TEDxLSU 2019, follow TEDxLSU on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Reserve your seat now to experience her talk, as well as the talks of all of the other TEDxLSU 2019 speakers.