From surf to sea life, PhD student discovers the Atlantic

Researching the impact of climate change on marine diversity

- August 16, 2011

Jackie Lighten checks out the waves of the day. (Nick Pearce photo)
Jackie Lighten checks out the waves of the day. (Nick Pearce photo)

From England, Jackie Lighten was attracted to Dalhousie to work and study with Professor Paul Bentzen, an expert in population and evolutionary genetics. The opportunity to do research in his chosen field, the evolutionary genetics of fish, as well as to surf Atlantic swells along Nova Scotia’s rugged coastline makes his new home just about perfect.

“The coastline is the best,” says Mr. Lighten, 28, from East London. “You can find spots where no one else is surfing and have the waves all to yourself. It’s world class surf for sure and thankfully pretty unknown in the surfing world.”

Even when he’s not catching a wave off the coast, Mr. Lighten spends a lot of time on the water. Over the past year and a half, he’s been on all three coasts of North America, hitching rides on fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels to collect tissue samples from fish.

In that time, he’s collected more than 10,000 samples from a myriad of diverse species, everything from haddock, halibut and herring to sharks, smelt and skates. Memorable catches include a 226-kilogram roughtail stingray and a three-metre long sandtiger shark—with its rows of ragged teeth and vicious appearance, it wasn’t exactly a gracious guest to the fishing boat deck. A quick snip of a fin and they’re back overboard.

His travels have taken him from waters south of Labrador all the way to North Carolina on the Atlantic; and from the Beaufort Sea in the Canadian Arctic to Monterey Bay, California on the Pacific side.

Since returning to the lab, he’s been examining the samples to look at DNA and inputting the information into a large database.

His PhD research explores the role of Arctic climate change in driving marine diversification in fishes. In their DNA, he explains, the fish reveal the “signature of contemporary and past population patterns and processes.” From there, “we have various ways of inferring evolutionary processes” and “ from this data can infer what affect future environmental change may have on species.”

So far, he’s been impressed with Dalhousie and his supervisor Dr. Bentzen, who “leaves us to our own devices but always has time for us.” And he loves Nova Scotia so much that he’d like to apply for Canadian citizenship. “It’s the people who make it so great. They’re laid back and friendly and everyone’s into the outdoors.”

“Don’t say too much about the surfing,” adds the Brit, who’s surfed off Australia and Central America. “Let’s keep that part quiet.”


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