A love of marine biology and data analysis

UTA graduate’s doctoral dissertation examines disease decimating Caribbean coral reefs

Thursday, May 09, 2024 • Katherine Egan Bennett : contact

Kelsey Beavers Scuba Research
Kelsey Beavers conducting research on coral reef disease

Kelsey Beavers’ love of the ocean started at a young age. Coming from a family of avid scuba divers, she became a certified junior diver at age 11.

“It was a different world,” Beavers said. “I loved everything about the ocean.”

After graduating from high school, the Austin native moved to Fort Worth to study environmental science at Texas Christian University. One of her professors at TCU knew University of Texas at Arlington biology Professor Laura Mydlarz and encouraged Beavers to continue her studies in Arlington.

“Kelsey came to UTA to pursue a Ph.D. and study coral disease, and she quickly got involved in a large project studying stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD), a rapidly spreading disease that has been killing coral all along Florida’s coast and in 22 Caribbean countries,” Mydlarz said. “She has been a real asset to our team, including being the lead author on a paper we published in Nature Communications last year on the disease.”

UT Arlington biology researchers Laura Mydlarz and Kelsey Beavers
Laura Mydlarz and Kelsey Beavers

As part of her doctoral program, Beavers completed original research studying the gene expression of coral reefs affected by SCTLD. Her research involved scuba diving off the coast of the U.S. Virgin Islands to collect coral tissue samples before returning to the lab for data analysis.

“What we found was that the symbiotic algae living within coral are also affected by SCTLD,” Beavers said. “Our current hypothesis is that when algae move from reef to reef, they may be spreading the disease that has been devastating coral reefs since it first appeared in 2014.”

A large part of Beavers’ dissertation project involved crunching large sets of gene expression data extracted from the coral samples and analyzing it in the context of disease susceptibility and severity.

“The analysis part of the project was so much larger than just using a regular Mac, so I worked with the Texas Advanced Computer Center (TACC) in Austin, which is part of the UT System, using their supercomputers,” Beavers said.

Beavers enjoyed the data analysis part of her project so much that when she saw an opening at TACC for a full-time position, she jumped at the chance. She’s now working there part-time until graduation, when she plans to move to Austin for her new role.

“I’m really looking forward to my new position, as I’ll be able to work on research projects other than my own,” she said. “It will be interesting to be a specialist in data analysis and help other scientists use the TACC supercomputers to solve complex questions.”

As part of the job, she’ll travel to other UT System campuses to educate researchers on how they can use the tools available at TACC.

“I’m really proud of the work Kelsey did in our lab these past few years, and I’m excited to see her thrive after graduation,” Mydlarz said. “Seeing my students succeed is one of the best parts of this job.”