Jason Adolf, marine science: Examines phytoplankton ecology and evolution

Associate Professor Adolf is particularly interested in understanding the mechanisms that drive changes in community composition, and how these changes impact the ecological function of phytoplankton.

Jason Adolf
Jason Adolf

Jason Adolf is an associate professor of marine science at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. His research interests are in the field of phytoplankton ecology and evolution, particularly in understanding the mechanisms that drive changes in community composition, and how these changes impact the ecological function of phytoplankton.

Adolf’s most significant contribution to the literature has been in the area of harmful algal blooms (HAB).

“The research I did as a PhD student and continued as a postdoc show that the toxin made by a fish-killing species of phytoplankton, Karlodinium veneficum, actually played a role in that species’ ability to capture prey and grow mixotrophically using photosynthesis and heterotrophy simultaneously, and at the same time protected it from microzooplankton,” he says. “The fact that the toxin killed fish was apparently just a side effect of K. veneficum reaching such high densities in eutrophic systems where its toxin gives it an advantage over other phytoplankton species.”

Adolf’s work at UH Hilo has shifted from the HAB work described above to understanding how groundwater and river water effect coastal phytoplankton around the island of Hawai‘i.

“A part of this has been deployment of real time continuous monitoring buoys in coastal waters around Hawai‘i island, and establishment of high frequency radio arrays around Hilo Bay, currently under construction, that generate near real-time maps of surface currents for the region,” he says. “All of the data from these sources are publicly available, and all of the projects employ students or have students volunteering as part of their education in marine science.”

Data from the Hilo Bay water quality buoy are available online through the PacIOOS voyager website, a public interactive map interface for visualizing and downloading oceanographic observations, forecasts, and other geospatial data and information related to the marine environment.

Associate Professor Adolf deploys a water quality buoy at Hilo Bay. The buoy measures water quality parameters such as salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity (i.e. water clarity) and phytoplankton biomass. The buoy remains moored about 1 km off the Wailuku River mouth. One of the main reasons it is positioned there is to capture the changes in water quality, particularly salinity and turbidity, the accompany large rainstorms and high discharge events from the river.

Adolf is the principle investigator of the Scanning Electron Microscopy project housed at UH Hilo’s SEM and Analytical Detector Laboratory. SEMs can magnify objects at about 300,000 times the size of the object studied.

“My work on the SEM focuses on imaging phytoplankton and microzooplankton from coastal waters and Hawaiian fishponds of Hawai‘i island, but I am involved with student projects imaging and analyzing marine invertebrates and corals as well,” says Adolf. To learn more about Adolf’s SEM work, see video jointly done with education specialist John Coney; Adolf starts his narrative at 1:04 in the video.

UH Hilo’s SEM was funded by a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation grant (2010-2013). It is the only SEM on the island of Hawai‘i and, in addition to marine science, it is used by researchers in many fields, including biology, geology, botany, and pharmacy.

Adolf in the SEM lab. At top is magnified image.
Associate Professor Adolf in the Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and Analytical Detector Laboratory. At top is highly magnified image.

In addition to research, the SEM also is used for teaching. Adolf says the lab gives students the opportunity to do research and learn how to operate the SEM. An undergraduate course has been developed at UH Hilo, allowing undergraduate and graduate students to be trained as independent users of this resource. The course is presently taught in summer but will transition to a regular semester course. It is taught through the marine science department but is suitable for all majors and research interests.

In addition to SEM imaging, an Oxford X-Max x-ray detector allows for elemental analysis of samples being viewed.

Adolf says his future goals and hopes include providing further opportunities for students to engage in hands-on learning by participating in these projects.

“I would like to see the data being produced by these ocean observing systems used in K-12 and undergraduate curriculum development in addition to research,” he says.

Adolf received his master of science in botany from UH Mānoa and his doctor of philosophy in marine estuarine and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland.



-Originally published on Oct. 15, 2013.

-By Susan Enright , a public information specialist in the Office of the Chancellor. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.