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Laura Fletcher: Discoveries in energy allocation

Two sea otters in the water
Photo by Unsplash

Laura Fletcher (‘22) thought she wanted to study dead fossils and bird evolution when she started the biodiversity and conservation major. However, after participating in engaging research opportunities she discovered a passion for studying energy-use similarities throughout all living organisms. She continues to be intrigued as she pursues her current rese
arch on sea otters and Asian shore crabs with biology professor Blaine Griffen.

“We're taking data that has already been collected on sea otters and plugging it into ecological computer models to answer questions about them,” Fletcher explains as she talks about one of her research projects. Her lab group focuses on energetics and the different trade-offs that come with having the right balance of energy in a system.

For example, the research team is looking at how sea otters are affected depending on whether more energy goes towards growth or reproduction. If the mother chooses not to nurture the pup, then she has a higher chance of surviving so she can reproduce later. If she keeps the pup, then she can care for it, wean it, and put all her energy into it. Energy allocation can also change based on the mother’s condition, age, and ability to obtain necessary resources from the environment.

When starting the project, Fletcher hated computers and didn’t think she would ever develop the necessary coding and programming skills. It was a leap of faith: “I’ve learned that you can do hard things you didn’t think you would ever be able to do."

Laura holding starfish at the ocean
Photo by Laura Fletcher

Studying Asian shore crabs—an invasive crab species that live along the East Coast—is another research project Fletcher is engaged in. “We are working on dissecting and taking measurements,” she says. “We are going to compare how they allocate energy at different latitudes.” Fletcher plans to expand this research by looking at leg regeneration and how it impacts the crab’s energy allocation and metabolic rate.

Fletcher finds great excitement in recognizing energy-use similarities throughout all living organisms. “We all use up energy, and we all need energy,” she says. “Because of that, we all exhibit these interesting tradeoffs, which then drives our evolution, and ecological interactions. I didn’t know if I would like it, but I grew into it, and I love it now!”

The hands-on experience outside the traditional classroom mold has particularly added value to Fletcher’s academic experience. Getting into a lab and designing experiments on her own was the best way for her to learn how science really works. “I realized that things don’t work sometimes, and you have to be okay with that,” she says. “You have to be able to learn from your mistakes and accept criticism and feedback from the people you care about."

Thanks to her positive learning experience, Fletcher has found her niche in science and plans to earn a master’s and doctorate degree to become a professor. Her goal is to make a difference in the scientific world of ecology, especially as a woman in science: “I want to show other young women I teach that it’s possible, and you can do great things and make changes.”