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Bio major looks to sea slugs for clues to climate change

CSULA graduate student receives first place at CSU competition

Photo of Hanna Koch.
CSULA graduate student Hanna Koch collecting sea slugs in San Francisco.

Photo of estuarine sea slugs.
A variety of Sacoglossan sea slugs; Alderia willowi is a species of Sacoglossan sea slug, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Limapontiidae.

These mucus-covered marine creatures might seem slimy to most people, but to Cal State L.A.’s graduate student, Hanna Koch, these estuarine sea slugs are cute, fascinating—and may reveal evidence of global climate change.

Using sea slugs as a model system to study fundamental concepts in evolutionary ecology, Koch said, “Results from this study will be important for predicting responses to ongoing climate change for similar animals inhabiting California’s coast.”

“My goal,” she shared, “is to identify and test the environmental factors responsible for setting the range boundaries for the sea slug species, Alderia willowi, in order to better understand how tolerance for the physical environment sets limits to the geographical range of a species.”

According to CSULA’s Biology Professor Patrick Krug, who is Koch’s faculty adviser, “Alderia willowi is the only animal on the planet that can switch between laying a lot of tiny eggs or a few big eggs. Most species do one or the other, but this slug toggles back and forth to adjust to our rainy winters and dry summers, respectively. It is only known to exist in southern and central California.”

After collecting slug samples from California estuaries for the past years, she tested if northern and southern California populations of Alderia willowi have evolved differential responses to low salinity-caused stress, and why.

For her research, entitled “Life at the Edge: Local Adaptation at the Range Limit of an Estuarine Sea Slug,” Koch recently won first place in the graduate division of the Biological and Agricultural Sciences category at the 26th Annual CSU Student Research Competition. Koch was one of only 11 CSULA students selected to represent the University at the systemwide competition in Long Beach.

“I have to thank my research advisor, Dr. Pat Krug,” Koch said, “for all of his help and guidance in both my graduate research and in preparation for my talk; he has been a great mentor.”

Koch’s passion for science, specifically marine biology, stems from her history of exploring the natural, physical environment and seeing how it differs around the world. After earning her B.S. in marine science from Eckerd College, Koch explained, “I came across Professor Krug’s lab, and his research using sea slugs to study fundamental concepts in evolutionary ecology instantly intrigued me.”

A member of the University’s Phi Kappa Phi honor society, Koch is also one of eight students selected as an IMPACT LA Graduate Teaching Fellow for the academic year 2011-12. As a fellow, she currently serves as a visiting scientist with a partner teacher at Hollenbeck Middle School to engage students in hands-on research science. Her accolades also include a Special Recognition in Graduate Studies Award and a COAST Student Award for Marine Science Research.

Koch, who hopes to pursue a Ph.D. to become a research professor after completing her master’s degree in biology at CSULA this spring, believes she found her true calling.

“The first-place honor is an affirmation that what I am doing is not only important and relevant in the realm of science research,” Koch said, “but also that what I am doing is something I truly enjoy and want to make a career out of.

At the 26th Annual CSU Student Research Competition, Dominic Quagliozzi also took home a first-place award for his research presentation, entitled “There Is a Yesterday: The Body and Technology in Art.” In addition, second-place honors went to communication studies major Remy Ashe and chemistry and biochemistry major Angela Guerrero. For info:

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Last Update: 01/12/2016