REU student studies coral stress to improve coral restoration

By Maria Gabriela Gonzalez Starchek

John Howard spent his summer exploring how temperature changes impact bleaching events in corals.

Howard’s eyes were set on finding his very first research experience and he came across the FIU Institute of Environment’s Coastal Ecosystems Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). The location at Biscayne Bay Campus and research in coastal environments grabbed his attention. 

The institute’s Environmental Epigenetics Lab welcomed Howard, a double major in biology and genetics, as one of their student researchers for the summer of 2021. In the lab led by Jose Eirin-Lopez, Howard focused his research on studying thermal stress tolerance in corals. He studied how environmental history might affect stress tolerance when corals are exposed to short-term heating. 

Howard compared coral clones grown at two different sites for the last seven years and evaluated bleached corals with photo coloration. During the photo analysis procedure, Howard took pictures of coral fragments after exposure to short-term heat stress. Free software called ImageJ analyzed the pictures and provided results, which were later plugged into R software. The R software results made it possible to analyze bleaching quantitatively using pixel content between the heat-stressed corals and the identical corals that were not exposed to heat.

“We found that there were differences in bleaching based on where the corals were grown,” Howard said.

Howard also used a chlorophyll measurement procedure for his research. This process required more physical work. Howard used lab equipment to measure chlorophyll that the corals retained directly. He collected the tissues of corals, isolated the chlorophyll using lab techniques and measured the chlorophyll. The process used specific wavelengths that show how much light is absorbed, which indicates how much chlorophyll is still in the coral tissue.

“Studying thermal stress tolerance on corals leads to coral restoration,” Howard explained. “My objective is to study short-term reparations for long-term impact.”

Howard’s educational path does not end after graduating from Penn State University. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in genetics. His long-term goal is to work internationally and educate others who are unaware of how important it is to preserve our environment.