Summer of Coral Reef Research at BIOS

The 2021 BIOS Summer Course offerings included two sessions of Coral Reef Ecology (CRE), an intensive three-week course intended for undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students. In total, 30 students were able to attend over the two sessions, including some that were unable to attend last year when the course had to be cancelled due to the global pandemic. The CRE courses were co-instructed by BIOS reef systems ecologist Eric Hochberg and marine benthic ecologist Yvonne Sawall.

This summer, due to demand from student applicants, BIOS offered two sessions of its Coral Reef Ecology (CRE) course, one that ran from June 28 to July 16 with 13 students, and the other that ran from August 9 to August 27 with 17 students. The courses were co-taught by reef systems ecologist Eric Hochberg and marine benthic ecologist Yvonne Sawall, with teaching assistant (TA) Michael Wooster. Wooster was Hochberg’s National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates intern in 2014 and has been a TA for three BIOS summer courses and three fall semester courses.

“The CRE course has always been one of our most popular summer courses and we were fortunate to be able to offer two sessions this year following strict Bermuda Government COVID-19 guidelines,” said Andrew Peters, director of university programs at BIOS. “Some of the demand this year was from students who were unable to attend last year when the course had to be cancelled owing to the global pandemic, but we also saw an increase in new applications. We are intending to again offer two sessions of CRE in 2022 and look forward to another successful season.”

The courses included a combination of lectures, class discussions, laboratory investigations, and underwater fieldwork. Here, a student holds a quadrat, a tool that reef scientists use to survey reefs. The quadrat is a large square (in this case made of PVC) that is divided into smaller units of equal size. When placed over the reef’s surface, the quadrat is helpful in measuring total coral cover, individual species cover, or the percent cover of different reef community types (such as algae and sand).

The courses focused on the functional ecology of coral reefs and included a combination of lectures, class discussions and presentations, laboratory investigations, and underwater field work that incorporated scientific diving skills. Lectures covered a variety of topics, such as paleogeography and geology of coral reefs; the physical environment of reefs; the biology of reef corals; reef algae and sediments; community and ecosystem metabolism; carbon and nutrient cycling; and zonation processes.

In the field and lab, students worked with scientific instruments and techniques for collecting and analyzing reef community and environmental data, conducting reef surveys, collecting corals for laboratory experiments, measuring the underwater light field, and investigating coral community metabolism.

“We wanted to teach the students important concepts and give them valuable experiences and first-hand knowledge of the material,” Hochberg said. “This course is the epitome of experiential learning. It is as if they’re on a three-week scientific expedition.”

Carla Fonseca-Paris, 44, a graduate student in marine conservation at the University of Auckland in New Zealand (and already holding a PhD in chemistry from the University of Chile), overcame a number of hurdles on her way to Bermuda. To attend the CRE course, she had to raise funds to cover the cost of airline tickets, medical insurance, and the mandatory 14-day stay in a government managed COVID-19 isolation facility upon her return. Plus, she had to secure an appointment to get vaccinated, which she managed to do in one weekend, and took as a sign to start fundraising for her trip.

“In retrospect, I’m so glad I did it because it was such an unforgettable experience and absolutely worth it,” Fonseca-Paris said. “I was able to learn a lot and discover beautiful places in Bermuda and the amazing underwater coral reef world. I worked hard, studied hard, and tried to explore Bermuda in every spare moment we had, but what I will remember most is all the amazing people I got to meet: Eric, Yvonne, Audrey [BIOS University Programs internship coordinator], Michael, and all of my fellow classmates. I am so grateful for this experience!”

Nicole Burt, 22, a marine biology student at the University of Southampton (U.K.), enrolled in the CRE course looking to gain experience in the field and laboratory because her last year at university was entirely remote and she missed out on those hands-on learning opportunities.

“By the end of the course, I gained a huge amount of confidence in my diving ability and practical research skills,” Burt said. The three weeks in Bermuda also spoke to Burt’s academic passions and plans for the future. “This course made me realize more than ever that I want to devote my scientific career to conducting research that is integrative in nature, with strong linkages between ecology, physiology, and the physical environment, and that is directly useful to conservation and management.”

More information on the 2022 BIOS summer courses will be posted here when confirmed. To sign up for summer course announcements, please contact