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Member Spotlight: Renata Ferrari

For early career scientist Renata Ferrari, making a difference in marine conservation includes changing the way humankind views and respects nature 
From SCB | Posted May 2013
Renata Ferrari earned her Ph.D. in marine ecology from the University of Sydney in April 2013. 
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"Most people think coral reefs are rocks. It's amazing how few actually know that corals are animals, tiny animals, and that it takes them tens of thousands of years to build a coral reef."

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Meet Renata Ferrari Legorreta, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in spatial marine ecology at the University of Sydney in Australia.  Renata seeks to understand the benthic dynamics of marine habitats to produce data that can be used for the management and conservation of marine ecosystems. 

Her Ph.D. in marine ecology included 15 months of field work on a coral atoll in which she studied the ecological processes that influence alternate states of coral reefs.

In the following Q&A, Renata talks marine conservation, professional development, underwater 3-D mapping, the rewards and challenges of attaining a Ph.D., and more. 

Why did you decide to pursue a career in conservation biology and what sparked your interest in the field? 

Gandhi famously said, “I must be the change I want to see in the world.” I’ve always wanted to see humankind respect nature more than what we actually do. Pursuing a career in conservation biology is the best way I can think of to change the way we see (and respect) nature. 
 
You’re Ph.D. is in coral reef management and conservation. Why did you select this specialty and what about marine science / coral reefs appealed to you? 
 
I have always liked the sea, 70% of our planet is marine, and the oceans produce one of every three breaths we take. For some time I thought I wanted to focus on marine mammal conservation. Then I realized that you cannot have the birds (or the fish) if you don’t have the forest, and an ecosystem approach seemed better than a species based approach. Of all marine ecosystems, coral reefs are the most diverse, and in my opinion the most beautiful. 
 

Renata measures the size of a coral in Glovers Reef Atoll, Belize

Your specialty is marine ecological benthic dynamics and modeling for conservation. What key ecological services are provided by benthic ecosystems such as reefs or sand bottoms and how does your work contribute to their conservation?

Some ecosystem services provided by benthic organisms are protection from storms (corals), white sand beaches (corals), water filtering (sponges), and food production (multiple). In coral reefs, benthic organisms (corals) build the ecosystem, they are like the trees in a forest and if you don’t have the trees, you can’t have anything else. Ecological benthic dynamics is just a fancy term for how the organisms that live on the seafloor (algae, sponges, corals, etc.) interact with each other, and thus how they affect the status and conservation of a coral reef.

You work a lot on underwater 3-D mapping. What is this and why are you excited about the role it can play in marine conservation? 
 
3-D mapping underwater is exactly that, the reconstruction of a three-dimensional model of the seafloor, and all the benthic organisms on it. This is an amazing advancement in science for coral reefs in particular because it means that now we can measure with incredible accuracy how fast corals accrete calcium carbonate, and thus how fast a reef grows. It also means we can accurately measure how different impacts destroy the 3-D architecture of the reef (commonly know among reef scientists as reef structural complexity).
 
Sometimes fieldwork includes carrying a heavy tank through the jungle. Nick, Renata and Victor get ready for a memorable dive.
 
What human activities are the most harmful to benthic ecosystems?
 
The lack of will to change our habits. These days everyone talks about global warming, pollution and overfishing, but very few of us consume only sustainable seafood, avoid driving on their every day commute to work or have a compost in our backyard. Not changing our habits to reduce our human footprint is probably the most harmful activity to nature conservation, not just benthic ecosystems.
 
In your experience, what is the most misunderstood thing about coral reefs? 
 
Most people think corals are rocks. It's amazing how few actually know that corals are animals, tiny animals, and that it takes them tens to hundreds of years to build a coral reef. The average coral grows about 1 cm / year. Can you imagine how long it takes to build a coral reef the size of a mountain range?

 

A school of grunts in a shallow Caribbean reef, Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

When you see a coral reef in distress, what comes to mind? 
 
Most coral reefs are, unfortunately, in some sort of distress. It is more common than not to see a coral reef in distress. However, when I see a coral reef under direct distress, for example being trampled by tourists wearing shoes, the first thing that comes to mind is “how can I change this?” In my example the best thing to do is to talk to those people and explain to them they are not standing on dead rocks, but on living animals. Most people react fairly well and make an effort not to stand on the reef.
 
When you see a healthy reef, what comes to mind? 
 
“Wow!  I really hope the next generation gets to see these coral reefs.”
 
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