With a novel scientific achievement, Nicole Fogarty, Ph.D., Wittenberg class of 1998, and her team of students at The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) succeeded in spawning not only coral but hope for coral recovery.
Aspiring to be a marine biologist since elementary school, Fogarty has always had a passion for coral reefs. As a second and third-year biology major and environmental science minor at Wittenberg, Fogarty traveled to Florida and the Bahamas to conduct research. She presented her analysis of two different species of coral worms at both a regional and national conference.
“For me, conducting research experiments as an undergraduate and being awarded a research grant by the biology department allowed me to confirm what I had already suspected -- that I LOVE research,” Fogarty said. As a current assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology at UNCW and a lead researcher, Fogarty now pays it forward by encouraging undergraduates to assist her with her coral research.
“To see the undergraduates' faces fill with excitement while witnessing coral spawning is so fulfilling as a professor,” Fogarty said. She was assisted by five undergraduates during the most recent research study on captive coral spawning and remains adamant about providing research opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students in the future.
Fogarty first witnessed coral spawning when she was a volunteer coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in the Florida Keys.
“The entire phenomenon is mind blowing,” Fogarty said. “Once or twice a year, corals release their eggs and sperm into the water column in a highly synchronized reproductive event. The result is what appears to be an underwater pink snowstorm, but instead of falling down to the ground these pink egg-sperm bundles float up to the water’s surface so fertilization can occur, and the next generation of corals can be formed.”
Hooked by this experience, Fogarty has dedicated her career to coral research, restoration, and education. Just this past year, Fogarty and her students succeeded in spawning both the mountainous star and knobby brain coral species in captivity, making them the first lab in the world to accomplish this feat.
“In recent decades, coral reefs have been devastated by climate change, disease, overfishing, and pollution,” Fogarty explained. “Because there are fewer corals and the many stressors that have led to their decline have not been alleviated, coral populations are struggling to recover naturally. By spawning corals in a controlled setting, we can increase the probability of successfully creating coral babies that hopefully can be outplanted to the reef.”
Through her engagement with different communities, Fogarty raises awareness of human mediation in marine ecosystems to individuals who may feel disconnected to the coast. As a native midwesterner herself, Fogarty acknowledges that the inability to interact with the ocean regularly may hinder an individual from understanding the implications of their ecological footprint. Though perceived as distanced, Fogarty explains that coral reefs provide at least 30 billion dollars annually in products and amenities to the global economy. From pharmaceutical advancements, ecotourism, food, and shoreline protection, humans are continuously benefitting from coral reefs.
“We need to protect the tropical ecosystems that we love to visit and from which we obtain an important food source,” she said.
In the future, Fogarty hopes to see this research continued and expanded to study additional factors that impact coral health at the earliest and most vulnerable stages. With the recent and rapid spread of a deadly coral tissue loss disease in the Caribbean, this research may be more pertinent now than ever in protecting and preserving the organisms in these treasured marine ecosystems.
By Emily Nolan ’21, University Communications