Diving right into research

Combining biology and mathematics, Julia Samson, a PhD student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, focuses her research on the pulsing behaviour of soft corals (Xenia and Heteroxenia) and how this behaviour affects and is affected by local water flows. Her project includes computational fluid dynamics simulations and flow visualisation experiments in the lab, with field data essential to test and validate these fluid–structure interaction models. Her field data comes from an international collaboration involving students and faculty from four labs: the Miller lab (UNC Chapel Hill), the Khatri lab (UC Merced), the Shavit lab (Technion/IUI, Israel), and the Holzman lab (Tel Aviv University/IUI, Israel). A Travelling Fellowship from the Journal of Experimental Biology gave Julia the opportunity to travel to the Inter-University Institute (IUI) in Eilat, Israel, with a team of her collaborators to collect data on coral behaviour and fluid dynamics.

Over fifteen days the field team was able to collect hours of video material of coral colonies in the Red Sea, pairing the videos with measurements of the local ambient flow. The team also artificially varied the environmental flow through shielding the colonies or by highly increasing the local flow to see how the kinematics would respond to changes in flow velocity.

The data gathered was crucial for Julia’s PhD dissertation research, and also for the graduation projects of two undergraduate students from the Shavit and Holzman labs. Thanks to a Travelling Fellowship from The Company of Biologists, the existing collaboration between the four labs was deepened, and they continue to plan further projects. The results of this work have been presented at several conferences in the US, Europe and Israel, and will shortly be submitted for publication.

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