Next Generation: Hunter Hughes on reconstructing past climate with coral skeletons

June 2, 2020

Advisor: Dr. Hali Kilbourne, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory

The following interview was conducted earlier this year. Currently, field and laboratory research is restricted due to COVID-19 precautions.

What is the focus of your research?
My research looks at how we use the chemistry of coral skeletons to reconstruct past climate. We can use corals to reconstruct historical temperature data, using the chemical composition of corals and the chemistry of the sea water surrounding them. The standard practice is measuring the chemistry of the corals, but many people have assumed that the sea water chemistry has not changed over time. I am looking at the sea water chemistry to see if the water surrounding corals may also play a part in reconstructing past climate.

Our lab has been growing sets of corals in the Florida Keys. We use a continuous water sampler to collect water surrounding the corals for six months and then twice a year. We collect those samples and run a chemical analysis to determine how sea water chemistry changed over that six-month period.

How will it make a difference?
Corals make their skeleton out of calcium carbonate. Sometimes when they are creating the crystal structures in their skeleton, the calcium ion gets replaced by a strontium ion. The more strontium you have in the crystal indicates that the coral was growing in a colder temperature at that time. Since this ratio between calcium and strontium directly correlates to temperature, it has helped researchers track past temperatures. While this method has been used to reconstruct climates, a variable that some researchers might not have considered is the ratio of strontium and calcium in the surrounding sea water. This is the chemistry we look to see if it should be considered when reconstructing past climate. A better understanding of Earth’s climate history will lead to better predictions for future climate.

What influenced your career path in science?
I graduated from my undergraduate institution with a liberal arts degree in English. After doing sales for a few years, I returned to school with the goal of gaining a graduate degree in climate science.  I wanted to feel like the things I was working on mattered. That initial step took a lot of self-reflection and understanding that I had the power to change the course of my career. I’ve had excellent mentors who’ve guided me through the various climatological disciplines. What stuck was paleoclimate, the reconstruction of past climate, because I’ve always had a fascination with ancient worlds, and the interdisciplinary skillset required keeps me intellectually motivated.

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES?
I met my mentor, Hali Kilbourne, on a field trip as a teaching assistant for an oceanography class. She was doing the exact kind of research that sparked my interest in paleoclimate, using coral skeletons to reconstruct Earth’s climate history. We kept in contact after that field trip, and she ended up having an opportunity for a master’s student within a few years. I applied to work with her, and it’s been a very rewarding experience. 

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
Being a presenter at the American Geophysical Union conference and meeting so many members of my field has been some of the most fun and enlightening experiences I’ve had as a graduate student. My advisor has also gone out of her way to introduce me to the people in my field. This has served as a great example for me and has given me tools to reach out to others and create networks and collaborations that are both unique to and overlap with my own advisor’s.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
Make small decisions every day that lower your carbon footprint. Own a plant, take quick (less than 4-minute) showers, carpool when possible. While you can do what you can to elect officials in office that prioritize the environment, the small choices that people make every day can have an astronomical impact if everyone does something. 

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?
Science needs ALL skill sets. When I was young, I thought that I wasn’t a scientist because I found math to be difficult and I had a natural affinity for writing. It turns out if you want to be a scientist, being creative and a good communicator are going to make you a GREAT scientist! So if you’re interested in science but you’re afraid of the math, don’t fret. Follow what you’re passionate about. 

Have you received a scholarship, grant, travel award or gift from a donor? What did it allow you to do and why was that important?
I have received two Graduate Education Committee travel awards to go to the American Geophysical Union conference, which were invaluable experiences. I have also received two separate grants to include oxygen isotope data in my analysis, a very important seawater variable for climate reconstructions. Finally, I’ve been funded to travel to the Red Sea next summer to conduct a pilot study exploring seawater chemistry in the Red Sea. This has been extremely important for giving me the confidence that I can conceptualize a study and gain funding for it.

What are your future plans?
I’m in the process of deciding on a Ph.D. program to join after defending at the end of this semester.