Coral reef work integral in professor’s award

Photo courtesy of Jim Maragos

On Nov. 7, Teasley Professor Mark Hay, Ph.D., received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Explorer’s Club.

Hay, a professor in Tech’s School of Biology, has made great efforts at understanding coral reefs and threats to them throughout his career. The award was presented from the Explorer’s Club due to what they saw as innovative methods and techniques towards the goal of coral reef conservation.

“Dr. Hay’s research and discoveries have influenced the foundations in the field of marine chemical ecology and created new procedures for effective conservation and management of the world’s coral reefs,” the Explorer’s Club said in a statement.

Hay has made over 5,000 dives during the course of the past three and a half decades, and much of this field research is aimed at gaining a greater understanding of the reasons why coral reefs are being steadily lost in the world at large.

According to Hay, roughly 50 percent of coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean as well as about 80 percent of those in the Caribbean Sea have died in the last half-century.

“For about a billion people around the world in the tropics, coral reefs are one of the major sources of protein, so the loss affects food security for these areas,” Hay said in a statement. “Reefs also provide storm protection for low-lying villages, absorbing big waves coming into shore. And coral reefs are kind of the underwater version of tropical rain forests because they have significant unexplored potential as a source of new therapeutic drugs.”

One other revelation that has come from some of Hay’s field work has been the discovery that, when coral reef organism are in the process of dying, they send  out certain chemical signals.

These signals are interpreted by young fish and young coral organisms as an indication to stay away from the reef. According to Hay, this is one factor that often prevents damaged reefs from healing.

“We want to switch from cataloging the demise to asking how we can fix things,” Hay said in a statement.

“We are looking at it more or less like a molecular scientist or human health researcher would. We’re asking what are the chemical signals involved, and whether there are opportunities to make minor adjustments that can have huge benefits.”

According to Hay, the team tries to organically determine interactions between organisms like coral in nature rather than by utilizing a lab setting. Hay’s work is mostly done in the field, despite the fact that he has a lab on Tech’s Atlanta campus.