Giving reefs a fighting chance against climate change
Marine scientist Emma Camp is a woman with two missions – helping save our reefs from climate change, and advocating for young women in STEMM while she does it.
Mangroves might seem like an unusual place for a coral scientist to work, but the unexpected is a theme in Emma Camp’s journey. From an urban UK childhood dreaming of being a dolphin trainer, to an unemployed master’s graduate struggling to keep her career dream alive, Emma’s now an award-winning researcher, UN Young Leader and was named an Associate Laureate in the 2019 Rolex Awards for Enterprise. All by age 32!
“I definitely didn’t have a ‘straight-road career’ to being a coral scientist,” reveals Emma. “From a young age, I was mesmerised by the ocean and the underwater world and worked towards a career in that realm.
“But after my Master of Science there were no jobs. So, I did lots of volunteering and started my own environmental auditing consultancy, which was me working in a niche area to get the experience I needed. I guess I had to change the route to get to where I really wanted to go.”
Though Emma persevered, the challenges didn’t end there.
Back on the academic path and undertaking a PhD in the Caribbean, Emma was blindsided when her original PhD hypothesis crumbled in the face of experimental results.
But this setback led Emma to an important scientific discovery that started her on her current path — she found corals surviving in unexpected places, and harnessed her new knowledge to help rescue the world’s rapidly degrading reefs.
“Some coral species are tough. I’ve found them surviving and thriving in the hot, acidic, murky waters of mangrove-fringed lagoons globally. This environment isn’t one we usually associate with coral,” Emma says.
While it’s not where we are used to finding coral, it is unfortunately what our once-pristine reefs increasingly resemble. Oceans are warming and becoming more acidic due to climate change, and this is already impacting the world’s ecologically and economically invaluable reef ecosystems, including Australia’s beloved Great Barrier Reef.
This is where Emma hopes her research will have a real and lasting impact. Since joining the UTS Climate Change Cluster (C3) Future Reefs Program in 2016, and under the mentorship of Associate Professor David Suggett, she has been focusing on pockets of coral resilience in the Great Barrier Reef.
Between 2016 and 2017, more than half the coral in the northern Great Barrier Reef was lost from an unprecedented heat wave event.
In 2018, together with C3 team members and collaborators, Emma sampled corals from specific species that had survived the bleaching trauma. Displaying the flexibility and ingenuity that has reflected so much of her career, much of her research was done in the makeshift lab she set up in a marble bathroom aboard a cruiser. By analysing the physical and genetic traits of these amazing survivors, Emma will pinpoint what helped these corals survive when so many others did not.
I was crying underwater. But as sad as this is, giving up is not an option. The alternative is not an option.
Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the UTS Climate Change Cluster
She says the findings will help pioneer active reef restoration on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s part of a Queensland Government project that’s being conducted in conjunction with David Suggett, eco-tour operator Wavelength Reef Cruises and local stakeholders.
If this wasn’t enough, she’s also bringing her strength, passion and determination to an honorary United Nations role. As a UN Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals, Emma advocates for ocean sustainability, the retention of women in STEMM and for young people’s right to be heard on climate change to governments, industry leaders and to key influencers who are capable of making change.
Emma knows better than most that if change doesn’t happen, the result could be disastrous. She recalls a 2016 research expedition off the coast of Africa. “In the Seychelles, in the space of a few days I saw coral reefs the size of two to three football fields transform from vibrant, healthy, diverse ecosystems to bleached, dead structures covered in algae.
“I was crying underwater. But as sad as this is, giving up is not an option. The alternative is not an option.
“As individuals we still need to do what we can, but if my UN experience has taught me anything, it is that it’s crucial we put more pressure on our leaders to engage with young people so our voices are heard. We will inherit the planet, we need to have a say,” she says.
Someone is obviously listening. Emma has been extended a rare invitation to attend the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in September, where global leaders will meet to discuss ambitious action on climate change and international commitments for carbon reduction.
Emma Camp is a marine bio-geochemist and Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the UTS Climate Change Cluster.
Emma was recognised for her work on coral resilience and reef restoration at the 2019 Rolex Awards, where she was named an Associate Laureate.
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