Faces of the Sea - Elizabeth Tray, Research Scientist

Elizabeth Tray - Research Scientist, Marine and Freshwater Research Centre (GMIT) and Marine Institute. Photo credit to Wonky Eye Photography.

Research Scientist, Elizabeth Tray, is preserving past marine research through the project 'Unlocking the Archive'. A partnership between GMIT's Marine and Freshwater Research Centre and the Marine Institute, the project aims to create a repository and database of scientific samples and also stimulate new marine research.

Growing up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in North Carolina, Elizabeth has fond memories of visiting the beach with her family.

"I always loved the sea and being near the water. My favourite memories are the family day trips to Wilmington Beach. There were amazing seafood restaurants, and I loved swimming in the warm waters of the Atlantic," Elizabeth said.

Elizabeth completed a Bachelor of Science in Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Following university, she gained work experience at a National Wildlife Refuge in Utah and with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

However, her interest in the marine environment, brought her to the Trinity College of Dublin to study a Masters in Environmental Science. Her research focused on sclerochronology, the study of growth bands in accretionary hard tissues of marine organisms, such as bivalves, fish scales, and corals.

"Sclerochronology is a particularly magnificent science. Every animal has a story to tell, and if you look closely enough you can find it. Also, some animals produce growth bands that are quite beautiful, so I am always surprised," Elizabeth said. "Understanding animals in the natural environment is incredibly interesting, especially if that understanding can lead to positive impacts for a particular species."

During her studies at Trinity College Dublin, Elizabeth had the opportunity to join a deep-sea coral survey on the Marine Institute's RV Celtic Explorer.
"The voyage was an incredible experience. I saw how the remotely operated vehicles worked, and how the scientists collected and examined samples. This experience really solidified my desire to continue working in the North Atlantic, and particularly with the Marine Institute," Elizabeth said.

Elizabeth is now working as a research scientist on a joint project between GMIT's Marine and Freshwater Research Centre and the Marine Institute in Newport, Co Mayo. The three-year project, 'Unlocking the Archive' aims to consolidate an existing collection of fish scales, otoliths (ear bones), associated images and data into a single permanent repository.

"The Marine Institute's facilities in Newport holds over 10,000 scales and otoliths from salmon, trout and eel, with some collections dating back to the 1920s. The samples are in different stages of image and data processing," Elizabeth explained.

"Samples are often collected to meet short-term objectives, and maintaining and archiving long-term collections is rarely a priority at the time. As a result, precious samples are frequently stored in many different and unsuitable locations, and may become lost or estranged from associated data.

"It's important to preserve these samples, because growth marks, genetic material, and chemical constituents of fish scales and otoliths produce data that can be examined for spatial and temporal trends. These time series can be combined with long-term environmental data, such as water temperature, to develop robust statistical models that help to predict population responses to a changing climate," Elizabeth said.

Elizabeth's work on 'Unlocking the Archive' will hopefully result in Ireland's first repository that is centred on fish sclerochronology samples, paired with a database of individual growth records, and scale and otolith images. The archive, recently named the Irish Fish Biochronology Archive (IFBA), will provide Marine Institute researchers with a designated repository for their fish scale and otolith samples and data.

"At the start of the project, I spent a lot of time finding out the needs of the scientists in the Newport Office, and coming up with different options to meet them. With the help of the Marine Institute's Data Management Team (OSIS), we designed our database. Once we had the sample catalogue working, I acquired the infrastructure for the physical archive. I researched long-term storage and sample preservation options to get the most cost-effective system. In addition to this, we are simultaneously imaging and aging salmon scales and populating the growth time series database," Elizabeth explained.

Another objective of the archive project is to stimulate new research, using the material that has been collated in the archive to address questions currently facing the management and conservation of diadromous fish.

"As well as the day-to-day work of developing the archive, I am working on a study in partnership with the Centre for the Environment at Trinity College Dublin, to determine if measurements of chemical constituents of salmon scales can be used to determine where a fish has been feeding while at sea," Elizabeth said.

In addition to collaborating with other scientists, Elizabeth also assists her supervisors at GMIT and the Marine Institute on workshop initiatives, and also supervises work-placement students to read and age fish scales.

"In this role, it's really important to be able to switch between different tasks and be adaptable. Having that willingness to learn new concepts, has really helped me to remain enthusiastic and driven," Elizabeth said. "I truly appreciate the scientific aspect of my job, reading and aging fish scales. Every fish has a different pattern on their scales, so the variability is very interesting. I also enjoy teaching work placement students, especially when they have curiosity and a passion for science."

While working at the Marine Institute, Elizabeth has also had the opportunity to collect samples for the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation is Southern Greenland.

"I really enjoyed the two week trip in Greenland, and getting to see salmon at the marine stage in their life cycle was incredible. I was able to grasp the magnitude of the distance a salmon can travel in its lifetime, and it deepened my respect for the species and my desire to continue to work on projects that benefit salmon conservation," Elizabeth said.

Elizabeth believes it is incredibly important to preserve our past research, in order to protect our marine environment in the future.

"It's amazing that research undertaken by scientists' decades ago, can still inform our research today, and help us predict changes for the future," Elizabeth said. "There is so much about our marine species and their environment that we don't yet know, so it is imperative for us to continue preserving, protecting and respecting our oceans."