Mote Scientists and Booker High Students Study Coral Reef Threats

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Booker High School teacher Michelle Anderson assists student Laura Alston as she conducts experiments on macroalgae to determine how the organism is impacted by ocean acidification. (Credit Mote Marine Laboratory)

Mote Scientists and Booker High Students Study Coral Reef Threats

Jun 27, 2013


Six students from Booker High School conducted independent research on climate change and ocean acidification — major threats to coral reef ecosystems — through a science education program launched this summer in partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory.

The week-long program at Mote’s Tropical Research Laboratory on Summerland Key allowed the students to join scientists from around the globe at the Lab’s innovative testing facility focused on ocean acidification.

This hands-on experience, fully supported through donations from southwest Florida communities, focused on increasing the students’ science literacy and specific knowledge of climate change and ocean acidification — significant challenges for marine scientists and resource managers working to preserve coral reefs.

Ocean acidification occurs when oceans absorb excess carbon dioxide from manmade sources such as fossil fuels in the atmosphere, making the pH of seawater lower, or more acidic. This chemistry change can make it more difficult for marine life to form and maintain calcium-rich structures like the skeletons of corals or the shells of many commercially important shellfish.

Mote’s Ocean Acidification Program has been studying this process using OAFTERU, or Ocean Acidification Flow Thru Experimental Raceway Units — a special seawater system that can be adjusted to different levels of acidity that scientists have predicted for the near future.

This unique research setup made the perfect training ground for Booker students getting their feet wet in marine science.

“They jumped in head-first,” said Dr. Emily Hall, manager of Mote’s Ocean Acidification Program. “All the students wrote proposals to talk about what they were interested in researching, and then we sat down and reviewed the proposals. From there, it was 100 percent hands-on. They ran their own projects with our guidance and support.”

From day one, the students were in the field alongside Mote scientists, collecting samples and gaining practical experience in hypothesis-driven scientific research.

“The very first day we went out and did some looking around near shore. The second day we took them out to an area with patchy reef ecosystems, where they collected some of their samples,” Hall said. “They snorkeled around and learned how to collect samples and how we as scientists identify marine life.”

With the help of their Mote mentors, the students set up a “mesocosm” study that mimicked a natural coral reef ecosystem in the laboratory under controlled conditions. Each student’s project focused on the impact of ocean acidification on a particular animal or plant within the larger community. Their results are currently under review by Mote scientists.

Booker student Laura Alston, who graduated this month, studied the growth of a calcifying macroalgae (algae that can be seen without a microscope and forms calcium-based structures) and how it is affected by ocean acidification.

“I chose to study algae growth because algae are such an important part of the marine ecosystem,” Alston said. “As an indicator species, algae can help determine if the environment is healthy and if the other organisms are doing well.”

Certain kinds of algae might thrive in more acidic oceans and possibly overtake reefs.

“I used a machine that captures the weight of the algae, and each day I weighed it to see if it increased in size,” Alston explained. Using a tool from the laboratory, Alston would determine if the algae were stressed or faring well under the different environmental parameters.

Fellow graduate Carolyn Silverman studied black sponges — reef dwellers that filter water and may provide habitat in areas where corals have declined. Back in the lab, she injected pieces of sponge with fluorescent dye to test the rate and distance the dye was pumped out, which indicated how well the sponges were doing their job of pumping and filtering. Silverman could then determine how changes in temperature and pH levels affected the sponges.

“I’ve enjoyed the whole experience — it’s a great mix of fun and work,” Silverman said, noting that it gave her a real insight into the detailed process of science. “Some of the chemical work is a little bit tedious, but I’m still enjoying it. I think I’m actually going to major in chemistry in college.”

While the students had some background in science, the program “created an environment for them to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and see it put into place,” said Booker High School teacher and program chaperone Michelle Anderson. “It’s something they never would have gotten in a regular classroom setting.”

This successful program could benefit these students and their peers in the future, Hall said. “I hope this group will tell their fellow students about why protecting our environment and coral reefs is important, not only to people who live near reefs, but to everyone else. For the students going off to college, they have the opportunity take this research with them and continue it.”

Alston, who plans to study art and business at Columbia University starting this fall, said she values this experience with environmental science and marine life.

“This is my first field study. I know after doing all these things that when I go into college, I want to make sure to really put myself forth in research,” she said.

To continue this successful program, Mote is seeking donations to support more student researchers from Booker. To make a donation, visit, select "Research at Mote Marine Laboratory" and type "Mote-Booker" in the comments box. You can also send a donation check for the Mote-Booker program to Mote at 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, 34236.

* Learn more about Dr. Emily Hall and her research at Mote in “The Heat Index,” an article on pg. 40 and 41 of July issue of Sarasota Magazine.


Founded in 1955, Mote Marine Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit 501(c)3 research organization based in Sarasota, Fla., with field stations in eastern Sarasota County, Charlotte Harbor and the Florida Keys. Donations to Mote are tax deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law.

Mote is dedicated to today’s research for tomorrow’s oceans with an emphasis on world-class research relevant to conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity, healthy habitats and natural resources. Research programs include studies of human cancer using marine models, the effects of man-made and natural toxins on humans and on the environment, the health of wild fisheries, developing sustainable and successful fish restocking techniques and food production technologies and the development of ocean technology to help us better understand the health of the environment. Mote research programs also focus on understanding the population dynamics of manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and coral reefs and on conservation and restoration efforts related to these species and ecosystems. Mote’s vision includes positively impacting public policy through science-based outreach and education. Showcasing this research is The Aquarium at Mote, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 365 days a year. Learn more at

Contact: Mote Marine Laboratory, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, FL 34236. (941) 388-4441 or



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