Crewmember Dr. Ruth Gates is discovering how corals might survive ocean acidification and other threats pressuring the world’s reefs. Her visit to the Great Barrier Reef during the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage provided an opportunity to bridge and compare Hawaiian and Australian cultural reef knowledge making for a robust educational opportunity. Backed by 25 years of globe-spanning research, Dr. Gates touches on the fundamental link between the health of reefs and people, and the value of connecting with others to navigate positive change.
From the start I was fascinated by how beautiful and complex corals and reefs were and was lucky enough to have a passionate teacher who brought them to life in a cold classroom in England 1000’s of miles from any reef. She used pictures and rich descriptions of their extraordinary biology and the importance of the three-dimensional structures that corals build. To me, reefs looked like submerged forests, teeming with life, vibrant in color, and full of energy.
The fundamental link between the health of the reefs and the health of people became clear to me while doing research for my PhD in Jamaica. It was at a time when there was much discussion about changes on reefs that related to human activities. I arrived with academic ideas about how the reef should be protected; that it was important to stop fishing on the reef. It made sense in the classroom, but later I saw first-hand how locals depended on reef ecosystems for their survival. I began to think about how academia could be more grounded in reality and how a participatory approach would be necessary for finding solutions.
I continued my training as a postdoc at the University of California, Los Angeles, which was an amazingly dynamic research environment. Coming from a remote, small marine lab in the Caribbean, I felt like a kid in a candy store. There were many experts, a plethora of equipment and a melting pot of ideas. An advisor encouraged me to think outside the box, to take lessons from other disciplines, and to commit to answering questions fully. He quietly enabled my development and success by connecting me to people with the tools and skills that would help me to become a creative thinker and a doer.
Eleven years into my professional career, an advertisement for a dream job at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology came by the way of a friend. It was a full time research position as a coral biologist–I felt it was unlikely that I would get the job, but I pursued it vigorously. Much to my surprise, I was hired.
Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology is on Coconut Island, or Moku o Loʻe, a small island off the coast of Oʻahu. It is a world-class research facility that focuses on marine life in tropical waters and is comprised of an amazingly dedicated community of researchers, students and support staff. We work on the very smallest, to the biggest marine organisms–from microbes to whales–and everything in between. I feel blessed to work in this incredible place and with such a creative and wonderful group of people.
My group is currently working to understand why corals either survive or die when exposed to high seawater temperatures, acidified waters and pollutants. We do cutting edge science that is often enabled by technology. Several years ago, a close friend asked me, “If you could do anything – what would you do?” I don’t think she expected me to take the question seriously, but it really hit a nerve. At that time, we were working in a very safe zone, surrounded by and talking almost exclusively too other scientists. We were spending time documenting why corals and reefs were dying, but almost none thinking about how to harness our knowledge to solve the problem. In that moment I knew we had to change the way we were doing business, that we needed to extend the reach of our science and to focus our skills on trying to solve problems on reefs.
With that new commitment to be actively engaged in solutions, many new doors have opened and we now interact with an ever-increasing circle of individuals and organization who are all working creatively to solve the problems facing our planet. We all have a deep dependency and connection with the natural world and we are united by values and a deep desire to see and help navigate positive change.