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Meet Orion McCarthy

Tell us a bit about your background: I grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC. I first became interested in studying animals and the natural world after visiting my local zoo and aquarium as a child, and decided that I wanted to learn how to SCUBA dive after snorkeling on family vacations. I’ve always wanted to work in a field where I could make a difference in the world, and feel that I can do that as a scientist by researching how the natural world is changing.

I attended the University of Maryland (go Terps!) and graduated in 2015 with a B.S. in Ecology and Evolution. Several experiences during college cemented my interest in marine science, including a semester abroad at James Cook University in Australia where I got to dive on a coral reef for the first time, and an internship with the International Pacific Halibut Commission where I got the chance to conduct field work aboard a fishing vessel in the Bering Sea. After graduating, I worked for several years in DC for the World Wildlife Fund and Meridian Institute, where I gained experience in the world of ocean policy. These experiences showed me that it is possible to have a career at the interface of science and policy and to conduct applied research with real-world implications. This is what inspired me to go to grad school, and after completing my PhD I hope to conduct applied conservation research for an NGO.

What are you studying/researching? "I study coral reef ecology. Coral reefs support so much life in the ocean – scientists have found that up to one in four marine species live on coral reefs. The fish that live on coral reefs also feed millions of people around the world, and the corals that build reefs help to protect coastlines from big waves. However, corals thrive within a narrow range of temperatures – when the water gets too hot, corals can bleach and die. For that reason, we are concerned that climate change will damage reefs, harming the animals and people that depend on them. At SIO, we are using coral reef science to better understand reef dynamics and are applying that knowledge to inform coral reef conservation efforts. 

I am part of Dr. Jen Smith's lab, and work closely with Dr. Stuart Sandin's lab and their 100 Island Challenge project. Our labs essentially use virtual reality to study how coral reefs are changing over time. We visit coral reefs around the world and take thousands of underwater pictures of each reef. When we get back on land, we use a technology called “Structure from Motion” to stitch those photos together into a 3D model of the reef. These models allow us to study the dynamics of reef communities in completely new ways, which enables us to ask exciting questions about coral reef ecology. 

For my thesis, I am studying how we can apply these 3D models to better understand coral reef dynamics across different scales and incorporate this knowledge to improve coral reef conservation. My research focuses on specific reefs in Maui where our lab has been maintaining a long term time series. It is exciting to be able to dive ""back in time"" with our reef models to visualize how the reef has changed over the past 6+ years, including through multiple bleaching events! Importantly, we are working with partners in Maui to incorporate our research into ongoing conservation assessments so that our time series can have a real impact. "

Tell us about your professional experience and campus involvement at UC San Diego: "I mentor several undergraduate students as part of my research on coral reef communities in Maui. Several of my volunteers have gone on to do independent research projects, and I have enjoyed watching them grow as researchers. I also helped mentor undergraduate students involved in an all virtual REU program held by SIO during the pandemic. I also enjoy giving talks about my research and experience becoming a scientist to grad schooler students via Salk's SciChat program. Of course, my favorite way to get involved at SIO has been as a regular volunteer diver at Birch Aquarium. The giant sea bass and I have become buddies, and I've enjoyed dressing up as Santa and the Easter Bunny in the kelp tank. 

I live in a beach house down the street from SIO nine months of the year and drift around during the summer (I've managed to find a different living situation each summer). It feels strange to live amongst millionaires and surfer bros... I still haven't quite gotten used to it. Given my proximity to SIO, campus sometimes feels like my backyard, and I enjoy running on the beach, exploring the tide pools, and walking Erik's dog Onyx (unofficial mascot for the 3rd year cohort at SIO) through campus during my free time. I also enjoy exploring San Diego's food scene and hiking, and look forward to having more adventures now that the pandemic is ending. Also, I am an avid potter and can't wait for the UCSD Art Center to fully open later this year - I expect I will spend a lot of time in the ceramics studio over the coming year!"

Why UC San Diego? Aside from the world-class research conducted at Scripps, and the beautiful weather in San Diego, I was drawn to the community of students and faculty at SIO. I was very impressed with the friendly, social, and hard-working spirit of the SIO community during the Open House, and that is really what pushed me to come here. I continue to be impressed, especially by my fellow graduate students, every single day. 

Have you been awarded any fellowships or grants during graduate school? If so, which ones? I was awarded the NSF GRFP the year I applied to SIO. This provided me with the freedom to design my own research project, and I am incredibly thankful for receiving this funding. 

What has been your favorite part about your graduate experience at UC San Diego? So far, the highlight of my time at SIO has been the friends and personal connections that I've made here. Being surrounded by other people who care as much as I do about the ocean and science is a new experience for me, and it is enriching both professionally and socially. And of course, being able to regularly dive and conduct field work hasn't been bad, either!