I am Acrop(ora), I am an Iiiiisland

Our Doris Duke Conservation Scholars are taking part in conservation internships all over the US this summer. They are guest blogging here at L-C-Ideas to keep us up to speed on what they’re doing. Please check back for more!

I am Acrop(ora), I am an Iiiiisland

By Maria and Zach

It was a sunny January day in Patagonia, Arizona and the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars were getting a tour of the Deep Dirt Farm Institute by Kate Tirion. Kate is an extraordinary human being who captivated all the scholars with her stories about her worldly travels, her path to living and working in Patagonia, and the work she and others were doing at Deep Dirt. Before the scholars’ departure, Kate had some closing remarks. One in particular had an ever-lasting effect:

“Imagine how we are all tessera in the tesserae, all pieces of a much larger picture. As each one creates a beautiful and productive environment, the image becomes more whole. We begin as isolated islands that serve to inspire others. Piece by piece we grow the image,” she said with her soft welsh accent.

We, Maria and Zach, have a new, more literal sense of this quote as interns in the Sandin Lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. For the Sandin Lab, are piecing together thousands of pictures of coral reefs to create photomosaics for analysis.

An ocean view from Scripps

An ocean view from Scripps

However, we still feel a sense of being new pieces of the metaphorical mosaic made up of people in the Sandin Lab and elsewhere that are working arduously to understand and protect coral reef ecosystems. Our contribution to the photomosaic project is identifying and analyzing juvenile corals or “recruits.” But before we could start, we spent our first week of the internship in training. Coming from Ohio and Arizona, neither of us had any previous experience identifying coral. Yet, from reading a three volume set of a coral photo guide called Corals of the World and persevering through a two hour presentation by our patient leader, Clint Edwards, we began to believe ourselves to be coral experts. We then dove into the water (well photos rather) to test our abilities to identify the adult coral, like Acropora, in the reef along Palmyra in the Line Islands. Truly, these photos made us feel like we were scuba diving in the most isolated coral reefs in the world for hours more than possible with scuba. On Monday, we went “live.” Having demonstrated our coral IDing knowledge, we were granted the privilege of working on the real photomosaic to identify recruits. And so we continued for the rest of the week.

Underwater camera setup

Underwater camera setup

For the two of us, our greatest takeaway so far has been the intersection of the photomosaic project with our passion for conservation. (We are Doris Duke Conservation scholars after all). Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, yet they are currently under threat by the effects of climate change such as ocean acidification and rising water temperature as well as overfishing. Not only do coral reefs provide critical habitat for many marine species, but they also provide vital ecosystem services to humans such as protection from storms and erosion, economic stimulus through recreation and tourism, and a sustained food source. Millions of people rely on coral reefs for protein, leading to overfishing. One victim of overfishing is the parrotfish. Since parrotfish eat algae that compete with coral for resources, their decline in population has led to a decline in coral. Currently there are only five fish herbivore protection areas (Belize, Honduras, Barbuda, Guatemala, and Hawaii). Emilie, a graduate student of Sandin Lab, is trying to organize a meeting with numerous stakeholders about fish herbivore protection areas to determine their success. Conserving these ecological hotspots is very important for both humans and the environment; but humans have to understand the best way to manage these areas and the species that live there.

While we were channeling our inner Simon & Garfunkel for the blog’s title, rest assured that we are not being rocks or islands. We have been with 25 of the most impressive undergraduate students from all over the U.S., including the U.S. Virgin Islands, participating in the Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Program this summer. The SIO SURF Program provides opportunities for diverse and talented undergraduate students to conduct research in the field of oceanography. Furthermore, the SIO SURF Program prepares us for graduate school with activities such as a GRE course and seminars on the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Overall, it has been great to get to know other students interested in research and oceanography through days at the beach and hikes together.

Maria working hard on the photomosaic

Maria working hard on the photomosaic

Our wish is that we have shown to you the reader our delightful start as interns in the Sandin Lab. The two of us have each taken away as much from this internship in the past two weeks as one would hope to have learn by the end of two months. With six weeks left, these two Doris Duke Scholars are excited for what is ahead, including designing our own research projects centered around coral recruits. There is also talk of a fishing trip to collect data on California yellowtail- we will keep you posted. Until next time, you stay classy San Diego.

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