Technology is Changing How Scientists Study Coral Reefs

A Scientist’s Life: Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith is a coral reef ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego since 2008. She received her PhD from the University of Hawaii in botany and ecology, evolution and conservation biology where she spent six years studying human impacts on coral reefs of the Hawaiian Islands. Following graduation, she participated in the first Scripps Line Islands Expedition in 2005 prior to starting postdoctoral research at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at UC Santa Barbara.

explorations now: What do you do for a living?

Jennifer Smith:  I’m a marine ecologist and I spend much my time trying to understand what factors are important in structuring marine communities. I largely work in shallow coastal ecosystems so systems that require scuba diving in order to study them and primarily in warm tropical seas where you find coral reefs.

Coral reefs are among the most important ecosystems on the planet. They provide a number of really important ecosystem services to humans such as fisheries and tourism. They support a huge amount of biodiversity and provide coastal protection from erosion. My research is really focused on trying to understand the factors that affect coral reefs, how humans specifically affect them through things like overfishing and pollution. I’m also interested in global impacts such as how warming and ocean acidification are currently affecting these systems so that we may be able to develop better management strategies for ensuring that these systems are with us for future generations.

en: What are the main questions in your field?

JS:   While it’s often portrayed that every coral reef on the planet is going to be extinct in the next 50 or 100 years, in fact if you go to remote locations around the world, you find that there are coral reefs that are still thriving, coral reefs that still have excessive amounts of living coral, and we’ve seen evidence those systems can actually recover from disturbance events rather rapidly. Even though the media portrays coral reefs as these very susceptible and fragile systems, they have been around for millennia, so there’s no reason to expect that with one disturbance event, they’re going to fall off the face of the earth.

We’re really interested in trying to understand what makes these systems resilient, how can we try to build some of this resilience into other places where people live. How can we better manage fisheries? How can we better manage water quality to give these coral reef systems as much strength as possible to ensure that they can recover from future warming events, which is inevitable with climate change?

en: What are the tools you use in field research?

JS: Being a coral reef ecologist in this day and age is really exciting because technology is advancing rapidly and there are so many neat new tools that we get to use to study these systems to increase our ability to capture data and to process information. We use an imaging system where we essentially just take a camera underwater and take thousands of pictures of the reef. We call it “lawn mowing the reef” because you go back and forth in a grid-like pattern. You bring all those images home with you, you stitch them together using commercially available software, and you can essentially build a 3D model of any coral reef on the planet. We then can go on a virtual dive in these 3D models. We can study these reefs in a way that has never been possible before.

Once we have the 3D models of a coral reef, we partner with scientists at the UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering, Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative (CHEI), who have built custom software that allows us to actually move in that 3D space to extract data. This is really novel. There really isn’t any commercially available software that allows scientists to do this so by partnering with these experts, we’ve been able to essentially extract data and information out of these 3D models that we would never have been able to do before.

en: Why did you come to Scripps?

JS: Scripps is home to so many brilliant scientists working on such a diversity of issues. That really opens up the research potential for any given scientist including myself. There are so many collaborative opportunities to work with sensor developers, software engineers, climate scientists that allow us to ask questions that we never would have before been able to do. For example working with Jules Jaffe’s lab, we now have an underwater microscope so instead of bringing organisms into the lab, we can bring the microscope into the field and view live organisms underwater in their natural environment. We can make measurements using autonomous sensors that can collect data from remote parts of the world through collaborations with Todd Martz’ lab. I find Scripps to be a very welcoming and collaborative environment and there are just numerous opportunities to interact, to collaborate, to ask questions that we could never ask as independent scientists.

In this day and age with all of the technological advancements that are currently occurring, there’s a unique opportunity for scientists to take advantage of some of these technologies and to interact and collaborate with partners and folks whom perhaps we would never have interacted with before. I was recently on a panel at South by Southwest talking about the use of technology for studying coral reefs and for coral reef conservation and it opened up numerous doors talking with audiences that I would have never interacted with on my own as a coral reef scientist and so that was really exciting to see the people that are building some of these technologies. People who are the forefront of Facebook and a whole variety of other media platforms are really interested in trying to help us communicate the coral reef story. Using social media in new and unique creative ways I think is really important for us as scientists to try to reach out and build a network to ensure that the messages are getting out to the public.

Many people are passionate about coral reefs because they scuba dive and like to visit these wonderful incredibly biodiverse ecosystems and therefore many people are actually really concerned about their well-being and their future on the planet. So I find it incredibly important for us as scientists studying these systems to communicate our results and to share our findings with the general public. I think we need to get more positive messages out into the public so that people have hope that there are actions we can take to ensure that these reef systems will be around for future generations.

This article is a reproduction of an articled published by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. The original article can be found here.

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