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diver collecting samples underwater

Collecting seawater and suspended food sources available to reef corals. Credit: K. Steward

Chris Wall, a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa marine biology doctoral candidate was selected for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) graduate fellowship program. With this honor, Wall received a $132,000 award to support his research on the impacts of near-shore stressors, such as nutrient pollution, and global stressors, such as rising seawater temperature, on coral reefs.

“While climate change is a long-term and significant threat to coral reefs it is important to remember that global changes to our ocean will co-occur atop local and regional factors that may support reef resilience or amplify the negative effects of climate change stress,” said Wall, a member of Ruth Gates’ laboratory at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) in UH Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST).

Wall mentoring a high school student. Credit: S. Thomas

Wall’s project will specifically test for the interaction of local and global stressors on reef corals in Hawaiʻi by testing how temperature and dissolved nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, affect a coral’s energy balance. Environmental stress can reduce the performance of reef corals and lead to breakdown of the relationship between coral and its algae symbionts (Symbiodinium spp.)—epitomized by the phenomena known as “coral bleaching”. Ultimately, nutrient pollution may cause corals to be more sensitive to ocean warming and bleaching.

“Chris’ EPA-supported work aims to tease apart and prioritize the diverse environmental threats facing coral reefs in Kāneʻohe Bay,” said Gates, director and researcher at HIMB. “This knowledge is critical in targeting management actions that can best protect and sustain Hawaii’s valuable reef resources.”

When Wall was in high school, he heard the news of the first global coral bleaching event (1998), “which killed 16% of corals across the reefs of the world,” he said. “This devastating fact, along with my increasing awareness of the local and global factors threatening coral reefs, really sparked my interests in coral reefs in an academic sense, and it motivates my research to this day.”

Supporting the next generation of environmental science leaders

“Through EPA’s funding, the STAR fellows will pursue innovative research projects while attaining advanced academic degrees,” said Alexis Strauss, EPA’s Acting Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “The work these students are doing is inspirational, and will help address environmental challenges in fields such as atmospheric chemistry, green energy, hydrogeology and toxicology.”

The EPA awarded more than $6 million to 52 students across the nation this year through STAR graduate fellowships. Since 1995, the STAR fellowship program has awarded nearly 2,000 students a total of more than $65 million in funding. Recipients have engaged in innovative research opportunities, with some becoming prominent leaders in environmental science.

Wall in scuba gear on the beach

Chris Wall, credit: M. Wall

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