Dedicated to preserving ocean life at every scale, UCF doctoral candidate Ashley Reaume is working to create an efficient and cost-effective “bioassessment toolkit” that can be used to evaluate the impact of water quality on plankton communities.

“Both plankton and estuaries play important roles in sustaining human life, providing us with ecosystem services like nutrient and carbon cycling, oxygen production, food provisions, and protection from erosion and natural disasters,” says Reaume, who is a researcher in Assistant Professor of Biology Michelle Gaither’s Lab.

Reaume is exploring how marine biodiversity influences and is influenced by environmental conditions. She remembers her interest in marine biology began when visiting her grandmother in the Florida Keys as a child.

“Spending time at the beach and on the water was so exciting, but I also witnessed the rapid urban development of the region as tourism grew,” Reaume says. “This experience showed me how closely human life is intertwined with coastal ecosystems and compelled me to learn more so that I could help protect them.”

She earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and environmental studies at Central Michigan University. That’s where she was introduced to environmental DNA research — which surveys biodiversity by sampling the originating environment. It opened her eyes to how essential every species is in an ecosystem.

After graduating, Reaume decided to pursue her doctoral degree in integrative biology at UCF. Then, in 2020, she was named a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Margaret A. Davidson Fellow.

As part of her fellowship, Reaume has learned more about the huge range of flora, fauna and microbes comprising coastal ecosystems. The fellowship funds graduate students conducting collaborative and cross-discipline research at any of the 29 national estuarine research reserves. For Reaume, it cemented a need to examine how small-scale changes could be used to answer large-scale questions about ecosystem functioning.

As a first-generation student, Reaume says navigating academia has always felt like a team effort. She credits her family’s support for enabling her to become a marine biologist.

She is also grateful to the mentors who have guided her along her path, including Nikki Dix at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve and Gaither — two accomplished female scientists who inspire her to make an impact.

She expects to graduate from UCF in Fall 2024.

“I have learned a lot about the relationships between humans and the natural world,” Reaume says. “As scientists, we often must focus on very specific, narrow questions. It is important to step back and look at the bigger picture in order to understand where my research fits in and how I can collaborate to make the biggest impact.”