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Coral Reef Course Immerses Students in Study — Literally

Published: June 12, 2018

Christa Edwards ’19 spent her 20th birthday underwater in Honduras. That evening, she was diving in a marine sanctuary in Roatan and watching a tiny invertebrate called ostracods display patterns of bioluminescence.

“They lit up the darkness for as far as we could see. It was like being in outer space,” said Edwards, a marine science-biology major with a minor in environmental science.

Underwater group photo
Biology Professor Kevin Beach and Associate Professor Lori McRae’s travel course on coral reefs culminated in a two-week dive trip to Roatan.


Edwards was with classmates in biology Professor Kevin Beach and Associate Professor Lori McRae’s travel course on coral reefs (MAR 344). They had spent a full semester in the classroom reviewing basic biology of corals, coral reef ecology and reading the most recent primary literature on what current research is going on about the global decline of coral reefs.

Then in May they headed to the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences for two weeks of immersive — literally — hands-on experimentation, which culminated in the completion of an independent research project.

Coral
Beach said the coral in Roatan has changed over the years; it’s now weedier and stress-resistant.


“There are estimates that we’ve lost as much as 50 percent of our reefs worldwide in the last 50 years,” said Beach, noting that reefs in Roatan are in decent shape. He said the coral there has changed over the years; it’s now weedier and stress-resistant. The island of Roatan has established this marine sanctuary: they don’t allow spear fishing, they have permanent moorings on the reef so people aren’t dropping anchor, they provide education and outreach about proper diving practices and choosing sunscreens that are safe to corals. Beach said they realized that tourism is the lifeblood of the island, and healthy reefs equal a healthy tourism industry.

The 13 students on the trip had to have all of their freshman biology and chemistry courses completed and be scuba certified. Offered every other year, the course included a service-oriented aspect where they worked on coral farms. They took species of coral that are disappearing from the reef, propagated them and out-planted them back on the reef to help grow these corals.

“I’m hoping they come away from this coral reef experience with an understanding of the trajectory that reefs are taking globally, but also what some small-scale efforts can do to help preserve and restore reef environments,” Beach said.

“While there are cultural excursions, for the most part the class is based on the reef, learning the organisms and learning to do work underwater,” he said of the more than 20 dives they completed. “They got a taste of what it’s like to be a marine scientist.”

Student propagating coral
The course included a service-oriented aspect where they worked on coral farms. The students took species of coral that are disappearing from the reef, propagated them and out-planted them back on the reef to help grow these corals.


Edwards, an Honors program student who received a scholarship to attend the coral reefs course, is getting a double dose of research and inquiry this summer. She came back from Honduras and headed to Fort Pierce, FL, as she is participating in a 10-week National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program hosted by Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. She is collecting fin clips from bull sharks and spotted eagle rays throughout the Indian River Lagoon in order to measure the total mercury concentrations in the tissue, determining if the mercury is impacting shark and ray health by measuring potential correlations between mercury concentrations and blood chemistry.

“Hopefully, the research will be used to better understand how mercury impacts the marine food web and to better protect our marine ecosystems that many people rely on from harmful contaminants,” Edwards said.

Swimming with dolphins
In addition to the more than 20 dives and academic work they completed, the students also went on excursions and enjoyed life in the sanctuary.


The trip to Roatan was impactful — meant for students to learn about themselves through travel-based challenges, both the highs and lows, personally and academically. For Honors student Ryan Tharp ’20, a marine science-biology major from Arvada, CO, the course changed his career focus, from becoming an ichthyologist to working with corals.

“This trip gave me a lot of new friends I don’t think I would have ever made otherwise,” Tharp said. “It let me be myself more, too, because I was with people who were interested in the same things I was.”

One of the most memorable experiences for Tharp was just getting in the water for the first time.

“As soon as I looked down, I could see schools of fish, tons of coral, sponges everywhere and algae growing on everything as far as 60 feet deep,” he said. “It felt like I had entered an entirely different world. Being able to see all this in person rather than on TV made the trip worth all the hard work.”

Students scuba diving
“I’m hoping they come away from this coral reef experience with an understanding of the trajectory that reefs are taking globally, but also what some small-scale efforts can do to help preserve and restore reef environments,” Beach said.


For Edwards, the course was an affirmation for her calling toward conservation.

“Seeing all the life and beauty within the coral reefs in Roatan fueled that passion inside me to work towards protecting those fragile ecosystems. Every dive was a new surprise with thousands of organisms waiting to be seen, and I want now more than ever to help other people understand that beauty and to understand why it is so important to keep our reefs healthy,” said Edwards, of Chattanooga, TN. “It was a humbling experience to work on the coral restoration farm there and to know that there is hope for these reefs.”

Learn more about UT travel courses.

 

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