Dr. Erinn Muller, Staff Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory, recently received the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) prestigious CAREER grant totaling $578,681 for five years of research and education focused on threatened corals

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Mote researcher receives major NSF grant to study threatened corals

Dr. Erinn Muller, Staff Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory, recently received the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) prestigious CAREER grant totaling $578,681 for five years of research and education focused on threatened corals.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers NSF’s most prestigious awards to support exemplary teacher-scholars through the integration of excellent education and outstanding research.

This grant will allow Muller — who earned her Ph.D. in 2011 and is building an exceptional career — to conduct new research with staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), a threatened species that has dwindled significantly in Florida and beyond. Muller will study the coral’s potential to be affected by, and rebound from, major environmental stressors: disease, high water temperatures and ocean acidification. Muller will also involve students in her research, engaging younger generations in science designed to benefit reefs.

“This is what I got into science to do, help save an ecosystem in peril,” Muller said. “Now this grant is helping me reach my lifelong goal.”

“This award will allow Erinn to help fulfill Mote’s mission of not only conducting great science, but translating and transferring it through education,” said Dr. Michael P. Crosby, President & CEO of Mote. “Mote is proud of its scientists who continue to get recognized by prestigious organizations like NSF and we’re happy to foster the work of scientists like Erinn who expand the frontiers of science with innovative research and make such a significant impact in the world.”

Muller focused her graduate studies on threatened corals, earned her Ph.D. from the Florida Institute of Technology and joined Mote’s team in 2012 when she received a Mote Postdoctoral Research Fellowship designed to help support the next generation of exemplary scientists.

Her coral research has taken her to the Virgin Islands, Japan, Curacao, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Sicily, Australia and the Florida Keys, where she conducts studies from Mote’s facility on Summerland Key. She has published peer-reviewed papers in 17 international journals and some of her work has been cited in other scientific publications over 100 times. Muller recently received the Young Scientist Award from the International Society for Reef Studies — an honor given annually to only one scientist in the world. She was also recently inducted into her high school’s “Hall of Distinction,” an honor that showcases Haverling High School’s graduates who have achieved a high level of prominence in their personal and professional lives, and who represent a positive role model to youth.

“Erinn is a promising, early-career scientist; I’m excited to see her results,” said Dr. Daniel Thornhill, Program Director in the Biological Oceanography Program at the National Science Foundation. “Her proposal was ranked highly by both our external reviewers and our review panel, and we were happy to award her this grant.”

Muller’s NSF proposal concentrates on staghorn coral because its populations are now a fraction of what they were in the 1980s. It dominated shallow water reefs in places like the Florida Keys for the last 2 million years, providing important habitat for other organisms and structure for the reef.

“I think my research through this grant is significant because coral reefs are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world and also one of the most important,” Muller said. “They bring millions of people to Florida each year, as tourists go to look at the reefs. They provide over 70,000 local jobs and are worth billions of dollars to our state economy. But reefs are in danger of being lost forever.”

Today the corals face significant stress due to climate change, habitat destruction, decreased water quality and other factors. Research by Muller and collaborators shows that stress from high water temperatures can make corals more susceptible to disease outbreaks.

To help restore vital staghorn populations, Mote’s research facility on Summerland Key has grown thousands of fragments of staghorn coral in its underwater nursery and outplanted many of them into the wild, with the goal of jumpstarting recovery of natural populations. In this process, it is important to understand which corals will survive best in our changing seas.

Muller will study Mote’s nursery-grown staghorn corals to identify genetic varieties that might be more resilient — more able to withstand and recover from environmental stressors. For example, resilient coral might maintain a steady growth rate under heat stress, or it might better resist or fight off pathogens like harmful bacteria.

The NSF CAREER grant focuses on exceptional education as well. Muller worked with Aly Busse, Mote’s Assistant Vice President for Education, to create a program called RAPS (Research-based After-school Program for Students). The program will focus on connecting students with scientific research, specifically focusing on coral reefs and diseases or resilience to environmental stress. The program will be launched in the Florida Keys and it will also be in St. Croix, one of the United States Virgin Islands.

The project will directly involve students in Muller’s studies. “The students will be doing their own research with an educator,” Muller said. “For example, when I’m down in the Keys, they’ll be able to help me collect data. We’ll also take them out to Mote’s staghorn nursery, where they can snorkel or scuba dive. They will be able to help us propagate corals and adopt their own coral that they can follow through time, which will allow them to be personally invested in our efforts to help reefs.”

Founded in 1955, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium is an independent, nonprofit 501(c)3 research organization based in Sarasota, Fla., with field stations in eastern Sarasota County, Charlotte Harbor and the Florida Keys. Mote has 24 research programs and a variety of initiatives dedicated to today’s research for tomorrow’s oceans with an emphasis on world-class research relevant to conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity, healthy habitats and natural resources. Mote’s vision includes positively impacting public policy through science-based outreach and education. Showcasing this research is Mote Aquarium, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 365 days a year. Learn more at mote.org.

Contact Us:

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, Fla., 34236. 941.388.4441

Copyright©2015 Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, All rights reserved.



Photo captions

Top: Staghorn coral from Mote Marine Laboratory’s coral nursery in the Florida Keys. (Credit Joe Berg/Way Down Video)

Middle: Portrait of Dr. Erinn Muller (Credit Mote Marine Laboratory)

Bottom: Staghorn coral in the wild in Curacao. (Credit Kim Ritchie/Mote Marine Laboratory)


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