Meet new faculty member Melissa McKinney

Melissa McKinney in Greenland
Melissa McKinney in Greenland

Melissa McKinney joined the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE) as assistant professor in January 2015. She holds a joint appointment in UConn’s Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering. The focus of her research is to increase our understanding of how anthropogenic stressors act and interact to affect wildlife health. In particular, she is interested in bioaccumulative contaminant-climate change interactions within Arctic marine food webs and species, such as polar bears. Here is what she said in an interview.

Where did you get your degrees?

I obtained my undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada. During that time, I completed an internship in Montreal with a mining company in their environment department, studying what they do in terms of environmental impact assessments. That experience got me interested in environmental toxicology and chemistry. After I finished my undergrad, I got my master’s in chemistry at the University of Windsor, which is on the Canadian side between Windsor and Detroit, Michigan.

During my master’s, I did more toxicology work; I was studying chemical contaminants in beluga whales. I conducted all of my research at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER). For my master’s project, I studied belugas in the St. Lawrence River estuary and the Canadian Artic, looking at comparisons between contaminant exposures and metabolism in these different populations.

I did my PhD in Ottawa at Carleton University in the National Wildlife Research Centre. I looked at contaminants in polar bear populations across the circumpolar Arctic.

My degree was technically in chemistry, but I had a specialization in chemical and environmental toxicology.

What did you do before you came to UConn?

After I graduated with my PhD, I did a postdoc at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where I focused more on polar bear research. The main project I was working on was a long-term data set from East Greenland polar bears. I looked at the relationship between climate change and contaminant trends in the polar bears. I mostly did quantitative diet modeling, which highlighted diet changes over the past 30 years and what that meant in terms of contaminant exposure. As it turns out, polar bears feed more on subarctic seals than they used to. They used to feed on more arctic-type seals and for some reason, possibly availability or access to prey on the ice, their diet has changed to prey that is more contaminated. This being the case, these polar bears tended to have higher contaminant exposure levels than if they had not switched diets.

I then did another postdoc at the University of Windsor. A project I was working on there was looking at subarctic prey fish invasions. In a variety of different locations in the Arctic there are invasions of subarctic forage fish, like capelin and herring, that aren’t usually considered to be arctic-type fish. Essentially, they’ve replaced some of the arctic forage fish. One of the things we’re interested in is what that means for contaminant exposure of higher organisms in the food web that would feed on these different prey fish. That’s a project I was working on right before I came to UConn, and I’ve got a new student working on it here.

What will your work here at UConn focus on?

I look at assessing contaminant exposure in wildlife, particularly arctic wildlife, and I also look at how climate change is changing ecosystems. I try to put those things together with other environmental stressors to look at what the interaction is between different environmental stressors, how they act on their own and how they interact with one another in order to affect the health of aquatic ecosystems.

One project I’m just getting started with is looking at killer whales in Greenland. Killer whales aren’t usually considered to be an arctic species; they’re an ice-avoiding predator. They only spend time in the Arctic in the summer when there is not as much ice. There are several reports of increases in killer whales in the Canadian arctic, in southern Greenland and possibly also in the Alaskan Arctic as well. There’s concern as to the impact of these killer whale predators on arctic ecosystems. Killer whales in the north Atlantic, which are the ones that are visiting Greenland now, are generally considered to be fish-feeding killer whales. However, they’ve now found seals in the stomachs of some of these killer whales!

So the question is, are the killer whales opportunistically feeding on different things because they have more access to the Arctic than they did before, or have they always fed on these marine mammals to some extent? In collaboration with some people at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and Aarhus University in Denmark, I’m trying to use a biochemical technique in order to quantify what they eat. We’re measuring fatty acid profiles in their blubber tissue; we want to find out how much they’re eating in terms of seals versus fish. Additionally, we’re using contaminants as tracers because seals tend to have higher contaminant levels than the fish.

Name one aspect of your work that you really like.

One aspect that I really like is that my work has the potential to bring about awareness. When we measure contaminant exposures in arctic wildlife and food webs, that scientific data can be used as evidence in order to support international agreements regulating chemicals. It’s very important because for contaminants, if they can get to the Arctic, it means that they are subject to long-range transport; there are not really a lot of local sources of contaminants in the Arctic. If we can measure them in something like polar bears, it means they can accumulate in food webs to levels we can actually detect. I think it’s important research, in order to bring about regulation of chemicals of concern and also awareness of how human activities can impact distant regions on a global scale.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

Well, I’m Canadian and everyone keeps asking me, was this bad winter normal for you? This is a serious winter, even for me – it’s so cold outside! I usually don’t shovel this much.

When I’m not here, I spend most of my time with my husband and my two year old son–and I usually end up spending most of that time driving toy trucks all around the house!

By Francesca Crivello