A Discussion with Dr. Emma Camp, Coral Conservationist and 2019 ROLEX Awards for Enterprise Associate Laureate
June 25, 2019
Emma testing out the Flexi-Chamber she designed to measure rates of photosynthesis on coral reefs.
Dr. Emma Camp is an Australian marine biologist on an audacious mission– she’s working to conserve corals in the Great Barrier Reef and ultimately across the globe that are rapidly declining under climate change. Dr. Camp championed a groundbreaking discovery: there are specific species of “Super Corals” that are able to survive in the extreme conditions brought on by global climate change: warm, acidic waters with insufficient oxygen levels. This discovery provides Emma a unique opportunity to uncover what supports coral survival into extremes, and along with her colleagues, she hopes to use this knowledge to aid rehabilitation efforts of the world’s coral reefs.
Dr. Camp was recently named an Associate Laureate of ROLEX’s Awards for Enterprise in which she will receive support for her research projects with the goal of understanding how we can fight the effects of climate change to conserve coral reefs and the marine life that relies on them.
Mission Blue had a few minutes to speak to Dr. Camp in between moments of her busy week in Washington DC to learn about her work and next steps. Dr. Camp’s passion is evergreen; her ambition infectious as she describes her pursuit of saving one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems.
Emma in the lab at the University of Australia extracting coral DNA.
Mission Blue: What inspired you to begin your work in coral research and conservation?
Emma Camp: I’ve always loved the ocean; it’s been my passion for as long as I can remember. When I was about eight years old, my parents took me on holiday and my dad gave me a snorkel. I put the mask on and looked under the water and was blown away at the mysterious world underneath the water that was completely unseen above the surface. I believe that was the moment where I fell in love with coral reefs. As I grew older, I understood the danger coral reefs are under and knew I needed to be a part of the solution.
Emma as a child snorkeling for the first time in the Caribbean.
MB: There’s so much negative news about the state of the world’s coral. What is something you’ve found in your work that brings hope?
EC: There are three things that bring me hope. First, young people bring me hope. Young people are so determined to create change, and they want the planet to inherit that change; a planet that has coral reefs. For the reefs, one thing that brings me hope is that there are still amazing coral reefs out there; we haven’t lost all coral reefs. If we have, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But, there’s also massive degradation as well and we’re at such a critical point in history for coral reefs to ensure that we don’t lose them in their entirety. In my specific research, I discovered corals that thrive in really hostile environments where you’d never expect them to be found. Specifically, in mangrove lagoons, they’re in warm, acidic, low-oxygen conditions, which is what we’re predicting globally with climate change. Discovering that there’s coral species surviving there gives me hope that they have the capacity to adapt, maybe not in full reef systems, but there are individual reefs that serve as sources for new technologies and new management strategies.
MB: I know you went to the Ocean Lovers Festival on the Sydney Coast! Mission Blue launched the Sydney Coast Hope Spot there. How was your experience?
EC: I was contacted to speak about my work there. I’ve had projects at the Sydney Harbor, and it makes so much sense that it was made a Hope Spot. The coral reefs seem so far away for many Sydney residents, but many people don’t know we have corals right here in the Sydney Harbor!
Spectacular corals on the northern Great Barrier Reef December 2018
MB: Have you met Dr. Sylvia Earle?
EC: I met Sylvia for the first time right here this week in DC, actually. She’s always been a massive hero of mine. To meet her in person was a really special moment.
Dr. Emma Camp met Dr. Sylvia Earle on June 13th, 2019, in Washington DC during the ROLEX Awards for Enterprise events.
MB: Something that you focus on is getting more women involved in the sciences. Can you tell me more about your work in that area?
EC: The United Nations have a Young Leaders program that you can apply for. Out of 8,000 applicants, they widdled it down to about 17 of us. I was selected and it’s a 2-year honorary position with the UN.
As we unfortunately know, women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are very underrepresented. As someone who’s been considered a role model in that area, I consider what we can do to facilitate engagement of young women in the sciences. What’s important to me is increasing the retention of women in STEM. We actually get a lot of women in STEM subjects; in marine science, but when you look at who’s published in scientific journals and who the professors are, you’ll see we still have a massive disparity. We don’t have the mechanisms to ensure that women stay in STEM. That’s something I’ve been trying to champion and echo. I was invited by the United Nations President of the General Assembly to give a presentation about my experiences as a woman in STEM. There, I was able to communicate in front of so many Heads of State about my positive experiences as a woman in this field– and also the negative– and related it back to coral reef research and highlight the value of the marine ecosystems in all parts of society. I go back to the UN in September for the Climate Summit– so timely!
MB: You were chosen as an Associate Laureate of the ROLEX Awards for Enterprise. What are your next steps?
EC: It’s such a huge honor to be included in the ROLEX family. Some of the funding I will receive will be to organize an expedition to the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef with support from National Geographic to identify some of these hotspots of resilience. The aim is to set up transportation to actually move some of these resilient corals from the mangroves to the reefs and back from the reefs to the mangroves to start to understand the capacity for corals to adapt, and to understand their tolerance for when they’re moved out of their environment. We have an ongoing project which involves engaging other reef stakeholders in coral custodianships. We’ll be setting up some coral nurseries to engage all sectors.
The first-multi species coral nursery on the Great Barrier Reef that Emma set up with her colleague A/Prof. Suggett and John Edmondson of Wavelength Reef Charters
Dr. Camp describes in her ROLEX Awards for Enterprise finalist video, “I’m motivated to try and ensure that [corals] persist into the future, and that I’ve done everything possible to inspire others to conserve this amazing ecosystem.”