UH Hilo alumna is now a NOAA postdoc, scientific diver, biologist studying the health of coral reefs

While at UH Hilo, Danielle Claar thrived in the island environment where she honed her scientific research and diving skills.

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Danielle Claar
Danielle Claar

University of Hawai‘i at Hilo alumna Danielle Claar grew up in rural Idaho where she developed an early fascination with wildlife. But she remembers her passion for marine biology didn’t reveal itself until a trip to Maui when she was 12.

“My parents are avid scuba divers, and I had the privilege to go diving with them when I was young,” she says.

Ever since that experience, Claar was hooked on the ocean. “When I was deciding what to do after high school, I was nervous to move across the ocean, but I decided to combine my love for science with my love for the ocean, and I came to UH Hilo.”

The budding scholar thrived in the island environment where she honed her scientific research and diving skills. One of her favorite classes was biology of marine plants. “It was so interactive,” Claar says. “We got to collect algae from multiple locations, and then we learned how to identify and preserve them. I still have my preserved specimens today.”

A group of people on a sea cliff looking for whales.
Danielle Claar and fellow students conduct whale survey as part of the Marine Option Program at UH Hilo. Courtesy photo.

She credits her professors and mentors with showing her opportunities at the university such as summer internships and scholarships, which she says helped her get footing to launch her scientific career. For her senior thesis, she studied ecological interactions of corals and algae—she says the experience helped her develop the ability to conduct research.

Claar graduated from UH Hilo in the spring of 2012 with a degree in marine science and a certificate from the Marine Option Program. She then moved to the other side of the country to work with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection at the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, where she worked as a biologist on seagrass monitoring, wading and diving bird nesting surveys, oyster bed mapping, and community outreach programs.

That experience led her to graduate school. “I knew that I loved research and field work, and that I wanted to continue on with that,” she says.

Research into coral bleaching

She began attending the University of Victoria in Canada in the fall of 2013, transitioning into a doctoral program where she focused on bleaching, resilience, and survival.

She explains that coral bleaching, the breakdown of the symbiosis between the coral animal and its algal symbionts called zooxanthellae, can cause dramatic changes to the coastal environment. Under normal conditions, the zooxanthellae photosynthesize and feed their host coral. But when ocean waters warm, the zooxanthellae are kicked out of the coral, and the coral appears white or “bleached.” If bad conditions continue, the coral will starve to death, although if they get better in time, the coral can regain new symbionts.

“Coral bleaching can cause dramatic changes to the coastal environment,” she explains. “Since corals are the foundation of the reef ecosystem, a loss of corals can change everything from fish populations, to invertebrates, to the structure of the reef itself.”

Diver with measuring apparatus.
Danielle Claar conducted coral research in the waters of Kiritimati (Christmas Island) between 2013 and 2016 as part of her doctoral thesis. Here she uses a measuring apparatus as part of a reef survey. Photo by Kristina Tietjen.

The main concern with coral bleaching is greenhouse gas emissions and associated climate change. Claar says emissions needs to be limited as solutions are found to mitigate change that has already occurred. Her recent research shows local protection is also important for reefs. She explains, “This allows us to work on large-scale solutions—political solutions to greenhouse gas emissions—while also tackling local issues like pollution and eutrophication.”

Claar attributes her interest in researching corals to her experiences during her years at UH Hilo as an undergraduate. “My work with corals during my undergrad at UH Hilo helped prepare me for my graduate studies on coral resilience.”

John HR Burns
John HR Burns

John Burns, an assistant professor of marine science and one of Claar’s mentors from UH Hilo, taught her a lot about corals.

“John is the epitome of being a nice, laid back, fun to work with person who does awesome science.” Having established such a good research relationship, Burns also worked with Claar during her doctoral work as a collaborator for her coral monitoring work on Kiritimati atoll. “I enjoyed working in the field with him and learning more about his research techniques.”

Postdoctoral fellowship

After receiving her doctorate in biology in 2018, Claar began doing postdoc research on a Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is studying large-scale climatic drivers of parasitism in coral reef fishes at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her goal is to understand how parasitic disease responds to local changes as well as climate change.

Over the past 30 years, the postdoctoral program, funded by NOAA Climate Program Office, has hosted over 200 fellows. The program’s purpose is to help create and train the next generation of researchers in climate science. Appointed fellows are hosted by mentoring scientists at U.S. universities and research institutions.

In the future, Claar hopes to continue doing research to uncover fundamental ecological processes and interactions.

“I plan to continue and expand my work with coral symbioses, as well as with parasitism, in the context of environmental change.”

She hopes to one day build her own lab and mentor students, providing opportunities for them to learn, grow, and discover.

 

Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.