Nation’s Top Marine Scientists Gather at RWU to Investigate Coral Reef Conservation Strategies

Roger Williams University sponsors second workshop aimed at applying latest research on local corals toward solutions for declining tropical coral reef health around the globe

Microscopic look at coral
The northern Star Coral growing inside RWU marine scientist Koty Sharp's laboratory, where she investigates this local coral's ability to withstand extreme temperature shifts.
Public Affairs Staff

BRISTOL, R.I. – For a second year, Roger Williams University is leading an initiative to bring together the nation’s top marine scientists to investigate how research into the temperate coral of New England waters can inform new research and solutions on the impact of climate change on tropical reefs across the globe.

Led by RWU Assistant Professor of Marine Biology Koty Sharp, this year’s workshop on Astrangia poculata, the Northern Star Coral, will convene leading research scientists from 18 government agencies, nonprofit institutions and universities on Roger Williams’ Bristol campus from Aug. 1-2. With twice the number of institutions participating this year, Sharp hopes to build upon efforts from the previous workshop that explored research into the species and its ability to withstand unusually drastic environmental change, and identified opportunities to collaborate toward a model for tropical coral reef ecology.

An inhabitant of waters from Florida to Massachusetts, the Northern Star Coral intrigues marine scientists seeking to understand how the temperate coral survives the extreme temperature shifts from summer to winter, potentially providing insight into resilience to climate change for tropical coral species, which have been decimated worldwide by recent global bleaching events. Sharp has been researching this coral’s microbiome for several years, bringing her work to the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Honolulu, Hawaii, last year where she shared her latest science with more than 3,000 coral reef scientists and practitioners discussing coral reef health status, tools and solutions geared towards conservation strategies.

“Our working group has helped to establish Northern Star Coral as a powerful model system and research tool for coral reef ecologists,” Sharp says. “There is an increased awareness about this coral that is reflected in the surge of participation in this year’s workshop, with many more researchers from across the country identifying it as an organism of interest and wanting to join together to learn more about this unique organism.” 

Students work with coral in lab
Student researchers (left to right) Erin Borbee, Rebecca Gow and Felicia Greco cultivate the Northern Star Coral inside RWU Professor Koty Sharp's lab.

Last year’s workshop at RWU forged several new research collaborations among the nation’s leading coral reef scientists, resulting in numerous proposals for funding, peer-reviewed publications on their research, and new ideas to pursue at the two-day workshop in August. Researchers will examine the symbiosis between coral and its host, the microbial community within the coral reef, the ecology of the coral and its role in New England ecosystems, including as a barometer of coastal and urban marine issues.

“The Northern Star Coral has the potential to transform our understanding of symbiosis – a biological partnership that is critical in tropical corals, but which is only sometimes used by this temperate coral,” says Randi Rotjan, co-host of the workshop and marine ecology researcher at Boston University. “This line of research has urgent implications for conservation and may be an important piece of the puzzle to understanding the basic functions of coral reef biology, and how corals can tolerate an increasingly changing climate.”

In response to recent cuts in federal grants for scientific research, the workshop will also feature a discussion led by Daniel Thornhill, director of biological oceanography at the National Science Foundation, on how to broaden funding and research opportunities.

“Ocean conservation research is linked to the broader conversations on global pollution, carbon cycling and climate change,” says Sean Grace, co-host of the workshop and professor at Southern Connecticut State University, where he directs a research program focusing on the Northern Star Coral. “There isn’t enough nongovernmental funding to tackle ocean issues, and without funding, science stagnates. ‘Saving science’ may need to become as much of a mantra as ‘saving the arts’ – both are critical to modern society, and the sciences have been underfunded for too long.”

RWU sponsors the coral reef research workshop with the goal that it fosters new multi-institutional collaborations that will advance scientists’ understanding of climate change and coastal ecosystem health, according to Sharp.

This year’s participants will include Boston University, George Mason University, Georgia Institute of Technology, The Marine Biological Laboratory, MIT/Sea Grant, National Science Foundation, Old Dominion University, Penn State, RWU, Southern Connecticut State University, University of Connecticut, University of Pennsylvania, University of Rhode Island, U.S. Geological Survey, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Western Washington University.