Early-life stages of marine invertebrates

18 June 2015

Dr Karen Chan conducts research in the field of oceanography and marine organisms, with a key focus in coastal ecology. 

Chan looks into the interactions between organisms with their surroundings, identifying how different environmental factors affect organism activity as well as, in the reverse situation, exploring the implications of the changed organism behaviour on the environment.

Chan studies invertebrates, planktonic larvae in particular like baby sea urchins, snails and barnacles. These organisms are essential in shaping coastal ecosystems and are difficult to monitor due to their minuscule size, smaller than a grain of rice but slightly bigger than a grain of sand.

It’s important for us to show people that no matter their appearance, these creatures are integral to the coastal ecosystem. For example, sea urchins are referred to as ecosystem engineers. Their grazing activities prevent populations of algae from overgrowing, thus helping maintain the diversity in the system.

Her research seeks to reveal the activity of such creatures when they are dispersed in the ocean, their movement, their food collection strategies and their methods of avoiding predators. The research also studies changes caused by human activity and climate change such as warming acidification, which causes a significant impact on organisms due to the reduction of pH levels of the sea. Chan uses a quantitative approach in her research by determining algorithms from measuring the activity of the organism in a controlled setting and feeding the data into a mathematical model to predict their movements in the ocean.

The results of this kind of study can outline the number of larvae populations, the conditions of living, the source site and their movement in the ocean. This helps inform conservation, industry and management sectors in determining their course of action regarding the sustainability of marine ecosystems.

Another ongoing research study is taking place in Panama, where Chan is investigating the effect of low oxygen levels on urchins and snails with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. In this unique location, coral spawns during the hypoxic months (i.e. months with low oxygen levels), providing an opportunity to make comparisons with an alternative sort of breeding condition for organisms.


Chan is currently an Assistant Professor in the Division of Life Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She was a 2012 Croucher Fellow and a Postdoctoral Scholar of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Prior to that, she received her Bachelor of Science (First Class Honours) from the University of Hong Kong, and her Masters and PhD in Oceanography from the University of Washington.


To view Dr Karen Chan's personal Croucher profile, please click here

For more information on Croucher Postdoctoral Fellowships, please click here.