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Sally D. Hacker walking though sand dune

Scientist elected AAAS Fellow for distinguished contributions to coastal ecology

By Srila Nayak

Sally D. Hacker, professor of integrative biology

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) announced Sally D. Hacker, professor of integrative biology in the College of Science, as a 2017 Fellow last week. AAAS is the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society.

Hacker joins 396 newly elected AAAS Fellows, chosen by their peers “in recognition of their contributions to science and technology, scientific leadership and extraordinary achievements across disciplines,” according to AAAS.

Two Oregon State University scientists have been named AAAS Fellows this year. Besides Hacker, Dominique M. Bachelet, an associate professor of Biological and Ecological Engineering, is also a 2017 AAAS Fellow. They join 30 colleagues across Oregon State, who have held this honor since 1965.

Hacker was recognized by AAAS for “distinguished contributions to the field of coastal ecology, particularly investigating the importance of native and non-native species interactions to community structures, function and services.”

Founded in 1848, AAAS publishes the leading journal Science and other cutting-edge research journals. AAAS fellows comprise an illustrious group of scientists such as inventor Thomas Edison, anthropologist Margaret Mead and biologist James Watson.

The 2017 AAAS Fellows also will be announced in the AAAS News & Notes section of the November 24, 2017, issue of Science magazine. Hacker and other 2017 AAAS fellows will be recognized at the 2018 AAAS annual meeting in Austin, Texas, February 15–19, 2018.

Studying the value of marine ecosystems

As a community ecologist, Hacker has studied the coastal habitats of estuaries, dunes, sandy beaches and rocky shore communities for more than two decades. She is an expert on the role and influence of native and non-native plant species in the Pacific Northwest coast, their ecological consequences and how they modify and transform communities through biophysical interactions with the coastal ecosystem.

Her studies on the effects of non-native beach grasses—transplanted from Europe and the East Coast of the United States to the sand dunes of the Pacific Northwest a century ago—upon coastal dune ecosystems has led to important discoveries about their role in biodiversity, dune formation through sand capture, and the coastal protection as barriers against storms and floods. Sandy beaches and dunes not only provide important recreational opportunities but also offset the harmful effects of sea level rise and increased storminess.

“The reason why I think dunes and their vegetation are so interesting is because of their large bioengineering effect on the environment. The grasses help to build a protective ecosystem—to me it is fascinating that you can have an organism that is creating a habitat and protective structure with immense environmental and human benefits,” said Hacker, who joined OSU’s College of Science faculty in 2004.

Hacker’s research has gained renown for her distinctive approach in raising awareness about the incredible value of coastal ecosystems and advocating for their management and conservation. An article she co-authored with other ecologists and economists, “The value of estuarine and coastal ecosystem services,” has been cited more than 1,300 times and is a canonical, landmark publication in the area of marine ecosystem services and benefits.

Beach grass on a dune

Beach grass on a dune in Oregon. Photo contributed by Sally Hacker.

The paper is one of the first to review the main ecological roles, services and economic values provided by coastal and estuarine ecosystems such as marshes, mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass beds, and sand beaches and dunes.

Hacker also studies estuarine and rocky shore habitats with a focus on the influence of ocean conditions on eelgrass and microalgae. Her research probes the effects of climate change on such habitats and the implications for commercial fisheries.

With the help of multiple grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), including Oregon Sea Grant and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), Hacker investigates critically important aspects of coastal ecosystems and their protection.

An ongoing Oregon Sea Grant study by Hacker, Francis Chan (Integrative Biology) and Peter Ruggiero (College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences) examines the relationship between ocean productivity and dune ecosystem function as well as dune coastal protection and conservation services. Another study considers the impact of sea level rise on natural and managed beaches and dunes in the vulnerable coastal areas of North Carolina.

In an exciting multidisciplinary collaboration funded by an award from NOAA NCCOS, Hacker, OSU coastal engineers and applied economists are exploring the valuation of natural ecosystem services.

“Marine ecosystems have value that go beyond ordinary measures. They protect life, property and infrastructure against storms and even tsunamis, provide recreation and contribute to environmental and human well-being,” said Hacker.

Using scientifically rigorous methods, Hacker and her collaborators are attempting to truly recognize and publicize the economic services and value of diverse marine ecosystems to the public and to policymakers.

“We are trying to understand and make visible the dollar value of a range of ecosystem services from the local to landscape scales. This can range from calculating the value of a house near the ocean protected by a sand dune to large-scale protection of a community from coastal storms,” added Hacker.

While growing up in Seattle, Hacker acquired her love for the natural world during hiking and camping trips with her parents. Undergraduate and graduate studies in coastal ecology at the University of Washington and at Brown University solidified her desire to be an academic and to make a living doing what she loves best: research and teaching on the natural world and coastal ecosystems. A dedicated teacher, she works hard to transfer her passion for experiential learning and fundamental science to her students.

Hacker leads and teaches the highly popular Marine Biology course (BI 450) based at Hatfield Marine Science Center (HSMC) in Newport along Oregon’s coast. In this intensive course, students learn about aspects of marine science ranging from marine organisms to marine ecology and conservation. The immersive learning experience at HSMC, exposes students to field work, hands-on laboratory research and the process of writing a scientific paper and giving a scientific talk.

The marine biology course is legendary and a big draw, attracting many students to marine sciences at OSU.

“Usually 50 percent of my students are from out of state who have come to OSU to take that class. One of the best aspects about the course is that the students go on to do incredible things with the hands-on education opportunities they gain at HSMC,” said Hacker.

Hacker’s impact as a teacher extends beyond her classroom, shaping pedagogical approaches in her field. She has co-authored best-selling textbooks Ecology (2008/2017) and Life: The Science of Biology (2006/2017), which have been adopted by hundreds of universities nationally and internationally.

Read the OSU press release: Two Oregon State University researchers named AAAS Fellows