UNCW researcher's device to study coral reefs attracting worldwide interest

UNCW researcher's device to study coral reefs attracting worldwide interest
A UNCW researcher spent eight years developing a device and using it to conduct research on coral reef metabolism.

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - After eight years of work, UNCW researchers have found a way to study coral reefs without disturbing the environment.

Dr. Alina Szmant and her team received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after submitting plans for their project in 2009.

"When you get a grant like this, you don't want to fail," Szmant said.

Her labor of love, CISME (coral in situ metabolism and energetics), is a diver-portable device which allows researchers to study the metabolism of coral underwater without removing it.

"It's a diagnostic tool to measure the vital signs of corals in their natural habitat, non-destructively, without having to collect them and bring them back to the lab stressing them in any way," Szmant said.

Szmant said NASA will use the device in Florida during an underwater expedition for the second year in a row. An institute in Hong Kong has paid for one and two more devices are on their way to Australia.

Wilmington isn't known for its coral reefs. In fact, there aren't many near the area.

Regardless, Szmant said she believes people in this region and all over the world have a vested interest in these "global treasures."

"A lot of people from here go touristing down to the Bahamas and the Keys and Belize and whenever I run into people, they are like, 'We went snorkeling and we went to see the coral,'" Szmant said. "People have a basic interest. (The reefs) are so colorful. They are so beautiful and they are so interesting."

The device won't cure the coral from disease or improve the debilitating conditions in which the reefs exist, but Szmant said it does provide an efficient and quicker way for researchers to find out what areas need help.

"It's a way to diagnose that something is wrong," Szmant said. "Then it's up to the managers, the conservationists and governmental officials to do something to address the situation that's affecting the animals."

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