Diving into research

The new marine biology minor is ramping up and connecting students with global efforts to understand changing conditions in tropical reefs.

People don’t usually associate the ocean or scuba diving in coral reefs with Minnesota. But if Sehoya Cotner has her way, farflung watery horizons will come to mind when the U of M comes up in conversation.

Cotner is the director of the new marine biology minor and an associate teaching professor with the department of Biology Teaching and Learning. The minor includes courses in oceanography, tropical ecology and marine animal diversity, some based in Minnesota and some further afield. And, beginning in 2015, students will have a chance to get their hands wet participating in an international reef health monitoring effort.

Cotner plans to launch a Minnesota Reef Check team this upcoming fall semester made up of students enrolled in her Tropical Reef Ecology course in Roatan, Honduras. More than 90 countries share data on reef health through Reef Check, a non-profit organization that works to protect and preserve tropical and Californian reefs. Students in Cotner’s course will have the opportunity to research and contribute to the organization’s international reef health monitoring database.

“It will automatically involve them in a collaborative network with a lot of institutions around the country and the world,” says Cotner. “Other reef check sites will be able to compare the data we collect to, let’s say, more pristine sites in the Caribbean.”

While in Roatan, students might compare fish metrics in high or low tourist areas or investigate how distance from shore impacts a fish population. Having a Reef Check team will not only allow students to get involved in this international research network, but add to their understanding of field research.

“A lot of our students do lab work,” says Cotner. “Lab work is messy and you screw it up all the time, and it needs to be iterative. Working in the field is that times 10 or times 100. Having this experience will poise them for future research opportunities.”

The ability to do hands-on research in reef health monitoring inspired CBS undergraduate Tiffany Galush to sign up for her ticket to Roatan. A fourth-year student studying neuroscience and minoring in marine biology, Galush looks forward to the firsthand experience.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing that in real life,” says Galush. “Because you can hear about it and people can tell you about and you can read about it, but I don’t think that’s really the same as going and experiencing it.”

— Lance Janssen

Photos from a recent reef ecology course in Roatan