Dr. Vania Coelho

There are about 300 samples of ocean coral in aquaria in the marine biology laboratory at Dominican. Dr. Vania Coelho, Associate Professor of Biology and marine ecologist, is working alongside her students to study each one of them in order to better understand how to halt the rapid decline of coral reef ecosystems worldwide. Time is of the essence.

Coelho and her students are conducting experiments that could uncover techniques to mitigate some of the effects of warmer waters that can weaken and eventually kill the reefs. Corals under thermal stress can lose their photosynthetic symbionts, which provide most of their nutrition, and became white or “bleached.” Prolonged bleaching can lead to mass mortality of coral colonies.

“The level of detail in collecting data, responsibility in maintaining proper experimental conditions, and individualized educational training that these students are exposed to is amazing. It is not usual for undergraduate students to have these types of opportunities, especially at the freshman and sophomore levels,” Coelho says. “The skill set is infinitely beneficial to them. They have to go beyond the call of duty to make this work, but by doing so they develop talents that will truly distinguish and help them for the rest of their professional lives regardless of what type of profession they choose in the biological sciences.”

The research -- geared toward preventing bleaching through shading in coral species commonly found in the Indo-Pacific -- is a product of a grant originally funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Coelho led a pair of separate projects in American Samoa in the South Pacific.

One project, in 2010, was on the main island of Tutuila where the research team worked with the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources to conduct studies in shading in a natural lagoon and its impact on coral. The other project, in 2011, was a field experiment with the National Park Service on the island of Ofu, researching the effect of light intensity in corals found in a shallow reef while manipulating temperatures in tanks with fresh seawater in shaded and un-shaded conditions.

“The data collected was excellent,” Coelho said.

Coelho is in the process of analyzing and submitting the data to academic journals. In the meantime, her students have accepted the challenge this spring semester of conducting lab experiments with coral collected from American Samoa.

“This is novel research that identifies solutions for contemporary, real-word problems. It’s an opportunity to learn a subject in the manner that’s totally different than anything else they do. It’s a quality of learning that cannot be offered in any other way,” Coelho says. “It’s an individualized learning experience that’s meaningful and truly helpful.”

A native of Brazil, Coelho said she knew at a young age that she wanted to be a scientist. She earned a master’s degree in ecology and a Ph.D. in zoology, both from the University of Sao Paulo.

At Dominican, Coelho also serves as the faculty coordinator for Dominican’s Center for Sustainability and faculty advisor for the Green Student Club and the Sustainable Living and Learning Student Community.

“I’d love for Dominican to become a leading-edge institution regarding sustainability,” Coelho says. “There has to be a broader increase of awareness and we must lead by example. That’s what motivates me.”

The same can be said of her purpose to preserve coral reefs, which have a profound effect on tourism and fishing industries worldwide. Coelho and other scientists are now in a race against time, as scientific models predict that oceans temperature could rise at least by two degrees Celsius within this century. Coral reefs are among the ecosystems most threatened by global climate change. Corals are the foundation species of their ecosystem, and as temperature increase, they may be decimated by bleaching events.

“Just as there would be no forest without the trees, there would be no reef without the corals,” Coelho says.

Health of the corals has direct implications for other organisms in the ecosystem. Coral reefs also protect shorelines. If corals are eliminated, it would result in greater coastal erosion and also in large areas dominated by seaweed. The decline in structural complexity of the ecosystem would also result in loss of fish abundance and biodiversity.

“There is no doubt that global climate change is the most serious threat to those ecosystems,” Coelho says. “We are studying a strategy within this century to help corals cope with the almost inevitability of the two degrees Celsius rise. It’s a strategy to buy time.”