About

I am an ecologist who develops and employs genetic tools to understand the past, present and future of marine communities. In 2020 I started as a Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. As a region, Hong Kong provides unique insight into a future in which booming coastal populations and economies are tightly interconnected with diverse marine ecosystems and their services. If you are interested in working with me as an undergraduate, graduate student or post-doc, get in touch at smcilroy@hku.hk for current opportunities.

Background and Philosophy

Research: I earned a Master’s of Science in Marine Science from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories where I worked with Dr. Jonathan Geller to gain a foundational knowledge in molecular ecology. For my thesis I applied those skills to develop a Fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) labelling technique in a study of shifts in coral symbiont communities in response to bleaching. This work was supported by a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute short-term fellowship and piqued my interest in understanding the causes and consequences of symbiont flexibility in corals. My Ph.D. from the University at Buffalo was under the supervision of Dr. Mary Alice Coffroth, where my work focused on the ecology of early life history stages of corals, particularly in relation to initial symbiont acquisition. During my first two years as a post-doc with Dr. David Baker at the University of Hong Kong I worked on several projects spanning from coral symbiosis ecology to coral physiology, especially as it relates to temperature and nutrients. More recently I have transitioned to a leading role in developing and executing MarineGEO-Hong Kong, a high-throughput sequencing based biodiversity and ecosystem function monitoring program.

Teaching: My goal as a teacher and mentor is to provide a positive environment where inquiry is encouraged, hard work is appreciated, and clear and constructive feedback improves work quality. Currently I teach a graduate level Molecular Ecology summer workshop. The link between ecology and genetics can be complex. Small changes in nucleotide sequences underpin important evolutionary drivers that are more complex than the sum of the individual parts. Furthermore, the technology of molecular ecology is changing rapidly, making it difficult to hit a moving target as methodologies advance. To meet these challenges, in my teaching and mentoring I try to incorporate the following: 1) strong foundational knowledge to understanding the building blocks of complex systems or methodologies, 2.) contextualised learning, which considers the culture and experience of the student body, 3.) hands on research experience, and 4.) cross laboratory exposure for a more complete understanding of how research questions can be approached.

Outreach: There seems to be an widening gap in understanding between scientists and the general public. Open and transparent research can be an effective tool in promoting trust through engagement with the public. MarineGEO HK provides us an opportunity to conduct research in public spaces; after retrieving settlement tiles from underwater habitats we take apart and process each one at tables set up near public piers. There are no barriers for the public to wander among us and ask questions about what we are doing and where the organisms came from. Many are surprised to see the diversity of organisms in their backyards. We set up tanks for animals for people to observe animal behaviours and at the end of the day we recruit children to enjoy releasing them back to the ocean. Several posters share information on what we are doing, how we do it, and what we have found so far. Visitors read the signs, and then they see real researchers at work and can ask questions. It solidifies a connection to scientists as real people using basic methods to answer a question.