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Sigma Xi Awards Its First Climate Science Grant

February 21, 2018

Anna Knochel

A new chapter has begun for Sigma Xi’s 96-year-old Grants-in-Aid of Research (GIAR) program. It has awarded its first grant from the program’s new category of climate science. The award went to Anna Knochel, an undergraduate student at Rice University. 

“More than anything, receiving this grant has helped solidify my confidence as a researcher,” said Knochel. This is her first grant. She plans to graduate in 2019 with a bachelor’s of science degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Under the guidance of her advisor, Sigma Xi member Adrienne M.S. Correa, PhD, in the Biosciences Department at Rice, Knochel will use the $764 grant to investigate the role that viruses play in coral reef ecosystems, particularly in single-celled algae that live in coral tissues, Symbiodinium spp., and in a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. A coral turns white or pale when the symbiotic relationship between it and organisms that live in its tissue becomes stressed and the organisms leave, making the coral susceptible to disease. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, increased ocean temperature caused by climate change is the leading cause of coral bleaching. 

“The plausible role that viruses play in the mechanism of coral bleaching, death, and recovery is crucial to understanding how reef community dynamics will shift in the near future,” Knochel wrote in her grant proposal.

GIAR Infographic Fall2017She will use her GIAR funds to purchase different genetic types of Symbiodinium and to learn techniques in transmission electron microscopy to observe signs of viral infection. Then she will expose thermosensitive and thermotolerant Symbiodinium to heat stress, observe their viral infection rate, and look at the viruses’ potential influence on coral colony bleaching susceptibility.

“I am very proud to represent my laboratory and our research,” Knochel said about becoming the first climate science GIAR awardee. “I am especially happy that this type of award is now available. Climate change is causing significant impacts globally, and this award category gives coral reefs and other impacted systems the attention they desperately need.”

Correa, who had four students before Knochel receive GIAR awards, knows the grant will help her student in more ways than completing this research project. 

“Sigma Xi’s Grants-in-Aid of Research program has provided Anna with valuable experience in grant writing and pushed her to think deeply about her proposed experiments and their broader impacts,” said Correa. “These funds will allow Anna to test additional coral microbial cultures for evidence of viral infection than she could have otherwise, giving her a better chance of publishing her work in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Listing her prestigious award on her [curriculum vitae] will also help Anna demonstrate to potential PhD supervisors that she is a strong candidate for their graduate programs. I’m very excited for Anna that she has received this award, and extremely happy that Sigma Xi is taking a strong stance on the importance of climate science.”

Pictured above: Anna Knochel