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Everything's coming up corals

VIRGINIA KEY, Fla. Two University of Miami (UM) students have received prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for their doctoral work on coral reefs. Rachel Silverstein and Nitzan Soffer will each receive three years of support for their work in the laboratory of Dr. Andrew Baker, an assistant professor in the Division of Marine Biology and Fisheries at UMs Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. In addition, a third student entering Bakers lab this fall, Ross Cunning, also received an Honorable Mention in the same national NSF competition.

Silverstein, a native of La Jolla, Calif., is a first year Ph.D. student who came to the Rosenstiel School after completing her degree at Columbia University in Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, where she graduated cum laude. Taking a year off before starting at RSMAS, Rachel undertook an internship at the William J. Clinton Foundation's Clinton Global Initiative conference, where she worked on climate change-related projects pledged by conference participants that included heads of state, religious leaders, and top CEOs from the private and NGO (non-governmental organization) sector.

For her senior thesis at Columbia University, Silverstein collected coral samples from the remote coast of Western Australia to study how corals change their algal symbionts over a latitudinal gradient from the tropics to the temperate regions. Understanding how these algae change within corals is critical to understanding how coral reefs might respond to a warming global environment. Silverstein is currently writing up this study for publication, and plans to work on the intersection between climate change and marine conservation for her doctoral work. She was also awarded a Graduate Student Fellowship from UM, which currently supports her work.

Nitzan Soffer entered the Ph.D. program at the Rosenstiel School in fall 2006, after earning her degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she graduated summa cum laude. After graduation, she took a year off to participate in a coral reef internship program in Eilat, Israel. For her Ph.D., Soffer is studying the physiology of algal symbionts to understand how the biology of their coral hosts is affected by the type of symbiont each coral contains. Employing biotechnology and experimental work on corals, her research also aims to develop new methods for studying how corals acquire new symbionts. Soffer is currently funded by the NSF Science Made Sensible fellowship, where she is the resident scientist at North Dade Middle School in Opa Locka, Fla.

Ross Cunning, who will be joining Bakers lab this fall, grew up in Indianapolis, Ind., and graduated in 2007 from Duke University with a degree in Biology and Environmental Science. For the past year he has been studying the microbial ecology of corals at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., with Dr. Kim Ritchie. At The Rosenstiel School, Cunning will be studying the interactions between corals and their microbial symbiont communities in order to understand how differences in these symbioses affect the ecology of corals, especially in relation to climate change.

These prestigious student awards come on the heels of Bakers recent recognition as a 2008 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation. Baker is helping to develop novel and groundbreaking techniques to enhance the thermal tolerance of corals, and help them to survive dangerously warming oceans around the world. Baker earned his Ph.D. in Marine Biology and Fisheries from the University of Miami in 1999. His initial breakthrough discovery that reef corals may be able to withstand climate change by switching algal partners was published in the journal Nature and hailed by Discover magazine as one of the "Top 100 Science Stories of 2001.

The year 2008 has been designated the International Year of the Reef by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI). The Rosenstiel School supports this worldwide campaign to raise awareness about the value and importance of coral reefs, as well as the threats to their sustainability. The campaign will consist of activities designed to educate and motivate people to protect our reefs throughout the year and beyond. For more information, please visit


Contact: Barbra Gonzalez
University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science

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