DSC06277 (1).jpgDPhil student

New College

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Research interests

I am focusing on octocoral biodiversity, conservation and phylogenetics for my DPhil. Octocorals (a.k.a soft corals or gorgonians) are an understudied group of organisms found all over the world from deep to shallow waters in both polar and tropical seas. They are the dominant corals of the Caribbean, providing habitat for many reef creatures, and yet many aspects of their basic biology as well as species’ status remain mysterious. I am interested in the role these organisms play in island reef ecosystems and how their species richness and abundance affects their health in a context of human impact.

My DPhil is based on Utila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, which demark the eastern-most extent of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Complex. This is the first species-level study of octocorals around the island. I have uncovered more diversity than was expected which is either incredibly exciting or just an artifact of an obsessive taxonomist (I challenge you to find me a casual taxonomist). Octocorals are an interesting group of study organisms for many reasons but the following are what I have structured my research on:

  • Octocoral diversity on island ecosystems in relation to anthropogenic pressure.
  • The ever perpetual hunt for a perfect barcoding gene; how much can you rely on plastic morphology for identification?
  • Underrepresentation of octocorals (and other oversimplified reef components like sponges) in traditional reef survey methods.
  • Associated species diversity, with particular focus on the flamingo-tongue snail and its host preference.
  • How disease, such as Aspergillosis, affects population dynamics in the environment.

My fieldwork is most awesomely supported by Operation Wallacea. Get a glimpse into what that’s like:

Researching the Reef: fish and coral of the Caribbean


  • Williams, B. L., Lovenburg, V., Huffard, C. L., & Caldwell, R. L. (2011). Chemical defense in pelagic octopus paralarvae: Tetrodotoxin alone does not protect individual paralarvae of the greater blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata) from common reef predators. Chemoecology, 21(3), 131-141.
  • Lovenburg, V. (2009). Terrestrial gastropod distributional factors: native and nonative forests, elevation, and predation on Mo’orea, French Polynesia. UC Berkeley: UCB Moorea Class: Biology and Geomorphology of Tropical Islands. Retrieved from: http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/73t4j6xs.
  • Species accounting work for AMPHIBIAWEB.

Conference material

  • Reef Conservation UK (2015) oral presentation “Host preference of the flamingo tongue snail Cyphoma gibbosum and its implications for the spread of aspergillosis”
  • Reef Conservation UK (2013) poster “The octocorals of Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras”
  • Deep Sea Coral Symposium (2012) poster “South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands octocoral by-catch: Families Plexauridae and Acanthogorgiidae

Research experience

Supervisor to MSc student researcher (January – July, 2014) Supervised a master’s student for research project on computational statistics.

Field supervisor (June, 2013 ~ August, 2014) Supervised seven undergraduates’ thesis projects in the field during Operation Wallacea research seasons.

Deep-sea octocoral phylogenetics (October, 2011 ~ October 2012) Work equivalency of MRes studying phylogenetic and identification techniques of deep-sea octocoral families Plexauridae and Acanthogorgiidae. DNA extraction, PCR and Sanger sequencing.

Limpet morphometric research (August, 2010 ~ July 2011) Worked with David Lindberg at University of California Palaeontology Museum on morphometric analyses of limpet shell evolution through the fossil record.

Biological Field Assistant (June ~ July 2010) Worked for Joey Pakes, PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, assisted in the identification of anchialine species, macro-photography of specimens, filtration of water samples, and collection of plant samples around cent in Puerto Morelos, Mexico.

Senior Honors Thesis (January, 2009 ~ May 2010) “Asexual Alien Anemones: Temperature and salinity effects on fission and  movement on Diadumene lineata and D. leucolena” Prof. David Lindberg, University of California, Berkeley

Biology and Geomorphology of Tropical Islands (September ~ December 2009) Independent research project: “Terrestrial gastropod distributional factors: native and nonnative forests, elevation, and predation on Mo”orea, French Polynesia” Prof. Brent Mishler, University of California, Berkeley

Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (January 2008 ~ August 2009) Worked in the Roy Caldwell Lab. Worked with Professor Caldwell in cephalopod and stomatopod husbandry. Assisted in the photography of lab animals and breeding experiments. Lead cephalopod caretaking and trained new research apprentices. Collected stomatopods on SCUBA with Professor Caldwell in Mo’orea, French Polynesia for various research projects.

Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (September ~ December 2007) Worked in the David Wake Lab. Contributed species accounts for http://www.amphibiaweb.org.


  • DPhil student UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD (October 2012-present)
    • Studying for Zoology. Biodiversity, phylogenetics and population dynamics of octocorals of Utila, Bay Island, Honduras.
  • MSc(Res) UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD (October 2011-October 2012)
    • Studying for Zoology. Molecular and morphological phylogenetics on deep-sea octocoral communities
    • Double major in Integrative Biology and Marine Science, Earth and Planetary Sciences, honours.
    • Coursework: Invertebrate Zoology, Evolution, Animal Behavior, Biology and Geomorphology of Tropical Islands, Animal Physiology, Environmental Toxicology, Herpetology, Biological Oceanography, Marine Geochemistry. Graduate coursework (audited): Phylogeny and Evolution of the Mollusca with Dr. Lindberg, Principles of Phylogenetics with Dr. Lindberg and Dr. Mishler, Evolutionary Ecology of Social and Sexual Systems: Crustaceans as model organisms with Dr. Caldwell. GPA: 3.74
    • Senior honor’s thesis: “Asexual Alien Anemones: Temperature and salinity effects on fission and movement on Diadumene lineata and D. leucolena” high honours. Professor D.R. Lindberg, supervisor.
  • A.A. SANTA BARBARA CITY COLLEGE (August 2002-July 2007)
    • Triple major in Biological Sciences, Liberal Studies (focus in Theatre Arts), and Liberal Studies with Transfer Emphasis.
    • Coursework: Marine Biology, Animal Biology, Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Plant Biology, Statistics. GPA: 3.35