Alumni lead the way on coral reef conservation

Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science alumni across the country are conducting innovative research, influencing policy, and educating the public to save coral reefs.
Alumni lead the way on coral reef conservation
Photo Courtesy: Liv Williamson

In November 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published the National Status Report for U.S. Coral Reefs, a first-of-its-kind report about the state of all coral reefs in the United States, geared specifically towards the public and policy makers. There were 22 authors. Six, or more than a quarter, were alumni of the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

It’s an impressive feat, and a testament to the number and reach of University of Miami alumni who are contributing to coral reef conservation efforts, whether directly or indirectly, across the country. “Rosenstiel alumni are all over the place in the coral reef research world,” said Ross Cunning, Ph.D. ’13, a coral research biologist at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. “I find that I have contacts almost everywhere now because based of the connections I made at the University.”

They work as scientists, policymakers, activists, program managers, educators, and even scientific advisors for movies. They work in labs or in the field, in schools, government or NGOs. Some, like Dr. Diego Lirman, Ph.D. ’98, and Dr. Andrew Baker, Ph.D. ’99, are right here at the U, conducting groundbreaking research, leading restoration efforts, and training the next generation of leaders in coral research.

And they stay connected to each other and to the U, leading collaborative research projects between the University and their own institutions, working jointly on reports and conservation efforts, and often returning to campus (or Zoom) to speak with other alumni and current students.

Read below to learn about just a few of the extraordinary alumni working to save our coral reefs, and be sure to check out our special Rescuing our Coral Reefs feature. 

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  • Erica Towle, National Coral Reef Monitoring Program Coordinator, NOAA

    As a National Coral Reef Program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Erica Towle, B.S.M.A.S. ’10, Ph.D. ’15, coordinates research teams to collect and monitor data about the state and health of all ten coral reef ecosystems in the U.S. and the communities connected to them.

    Favorite coral: Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata). “It’s a Caribbean coral that used to be very common in Florida but had been decimated over the last couple of decades. It’s coming back due to restoration efforts. It's called the Elkhorn coral, so you can imagine it kind of looks like the antlers of an elk. It's just incredibly beautiful.”

    Read Erica’s story

  • Ross Cunning, Coral Research Biologist, Shedd Aquarium

    As a coral research biologist at Shedd Aquarium’s Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research in Chicago, Ross Cunning studies coral reefs in Florida and in the Bahamas to understand how to sustain reef ecosystems in the face of a changing climate. He works closely with the Rosenstiel School on a number of collaborative research projects.

    Favorite coral: Mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolate). “It forms some of the largest colonies that you'll see on reefs in Florida and throughout the Caribbean. It’s fascinating because it partners with many different symbiotic algae (the algae the gives corals food and its color). And it’s also the coral I worked on the most during my Ph.D.”

    Read Ross’s story

  • Shannon Jones, Conservations Program Manager at Frost Science

    At Frost Science, Shannon is involved in several educational and outreach programs, including Museum Volunteers for the Environment (MUVE), a volunteer-driven restoration program that works to restore coastal habitats, including coral reefs. She is also part of the team collaborating with Rosenstiel School scientists and other regional partners in the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Restoration Hub.

    Read Shannon’s Q&A.