Under the Lens: Meg Malone
Meg Malone is a fourth year PhD candidate in Joel Brown’s lab, and she may do some of the coolest research in our department. She’s a behavioral ecologist and an expert on tropical fishes. Her research and teaching take her to exotic locations, and some of her on-the-job hazards of sharks and tropical storms evoke fear in even the most landlocked among us. We sat down and chatted in a coffee shop in Chicago on a cold January day, and enjoyed a pleasant conversation about research and the ocean. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you start by telling me a little bit about your research?
I have three major aspects to my research that all have to do with fish feeding behavior. Part of my work is at the Field Museum. I look at the diversity of fishes through studying their jaws and how their jaws differ and how that relates to the way that they feed or their ecology. And then I look at feeding behavior in a controlled lab setting where I manipulate the prey that’s available to these fish that I research. Using high speed video, I analyze their feeding behavior in terms of changes in the ways they open and close their jaws, how they modulate their behavior based on the prey type. Last, I look at feeding and how it’s actually happening in the context of their home environments. I want to know how fear of predation changes their foraging decisions
Sounds like a lot of different pieces to answer similar questions. What was your first intro to fish feeding?
My first introduction to fish feeding was as an undergraduate. I did stomach content analysis. It was disgusting of yellow fin tuna, sharks, and wahoo. These are all large, pelagic predators—they swim and forage in the middle-depth water. The question we were trying to answer was if they were feeding at fish aggregating devices which are targeted for tuna fisheries. We were looking at gut contents, trying to identify species based on what was left from these large fishes’ stomachs.
A lot of people that think studying reef fishes is pretty glamorous work. Tell me about the realities of working in Hawaii.
Working in Hawaii is work. It’s wonderful and I love it, but when I’m there I’m there for a limited time. I have to get my work done in that time. There’s a lot of pressure to problem solve and troubleshoot the field work while you’re there. It’s fun but it is a little stressful. I’m in the water most of the day and it’s draining. It’s beautiful and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s very physically demanding work as well.
Do you have any stories about field work you’d like to share?
I have been in Hawaii over the last 3 summers. 2014 and 2015 were El Niño years. The conditions in the bay were calm and very hot. There were issues with coral bleaching because the water temperatures were so hot. In summer 2016 there was no El Niño, and the trade winds were picking back up and so conditions were a bit more turbid. There was more movement from the wind, and the water was not as clear. This wind brought in the Man o War jellyfish. My poor field assistant got stung on her first day in the water. The Man o War wrapped around her snorkel—got into her mouth and on the side of her face. I was stung a couple of times on my hands and ankles. We still had to be in the water, so we really covered up; we bought hoods, which normally you wouldn’t think you would need in tropical water. But we wore hoods and gloves and covered up as much as possible. Any time you let your guard down and thought you were okay to swim without your hood, you were going to get stung.
How badly does it hurt to get stung by a Man o War?
The first time I was stung, I cried. And I had the worst reaction for my arms and legs because I didn’t slowlymove away like I was supposed to. When I got stung the second time, my co-adviser was there. So I just picked off the top part of the jellyfish, flung it away, and looked pretty badass. I didn’t cry that time.
Obviously it’s hard to study tropical fish here in Chicago. I wouldn’t expect a tropical field biologist to be based here at UIC. Tell me a little bit more about what you do in the winter, in the lab.
Right now I’m analyzing data, going through video of fish feeding on the reefs that I collected over the summer, analyzing images. The past couple of years I spent a lot of time writing grants to fund this summer field work, but last year was my last field season. This summer I’ll be writing and I’m also helping the students going on the Northwest Passage project.
What is the Northwest Passage Project?
It’s an arctic expedition funded through NSF. They send students from Universities with high diversity on a once in a lifetime opportunity to do research and sail through the Northwest Passage.
How’d you get involved in that?
Miquel Gonzales-Meler and Max Berkelhammer are running the program based out of UIC and I am adding the marine biology component to to help students prepare for their trip. I will not be going on the Northwest Passage, unfortunately.
I’m excited about it. I did an NSF REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) as an undergrad and was highly impacted by having that high level research experience. I was really excited we could help these students have a similar or even more amazing opportunity.
Why were you interested in doing a PhD?
I did my Masters, and I knew that I wanted to keep learning. I loved doing field work and had honed in what I wanted to be a specialist in. Basically I knew what I wanted to do as my career, and that required a PhD.
In your dream scenario what are you going to be doing 5 years down the line?
I hope to be doing research. I’d like to keep asking questions about fishes and working on coral reefs is amazing. They’re vital ecosystems. But I’m a fish nerd and I could be happy working on fishes anywhere.
Do you want to go the academic route or museums?
They both have their pros and cons. I love teaching, and I would like to do research and teach with an academic position but I feel like saying that’s your goal these days is dangerous. Everyone knows it’s a hard route. I wouldn’t mind working for a non-profit like a museum or an aquarium
Back to the reef as a vital ecosystem, what’s one thing you think everyone should know about coral reefs?
I love the diversity of fishes, and coral reefs are a hot bed of diversity. But the reality is they also provide food and support a lot of people around the world. We need to protect that resource. At the end of the day, we need to say that not only are they amazing sources of biodiversity, but they’re essential for people living in small island nations or coastal communities around the world. I think a lot of people forget about that. It’s difficult to see that when you’re in Hawaii or Cancun and just snorkeling for fun.
If you could give your pre-college self some advice about pursuing this career path, what would it be?
Just keep at it. Be persistent. It’s hard, but if you’re doing what you love, it’s worthwhile. So keep persisting.
If you weren’t pursuing a PhD what would be your alternative reality?
If I wasn't doing a PhD, I would have my own egg burrito food truck. I make a mean egg burrito and I can't tell you how many times I wish there was an egg burrito truck outside our office. Or I would be a Pilates instructor.