CORAL WEEK: Carly Kenkel on coral adaptation and evolution and where to next

Our last splendid CORAL WEEK curator is Dr Carly Kenkel (@DrCarlsHorn), NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville. Carly’s background is in marine biology, ecology and evolution, and she will be talking about everything fromunnamed-1 coral biology to genomics of coral adaptation and evolution. Here’s how Carly came to study corals.


None of my family are scientists, but I think science was always on my radar – the need to learn and understand the world around me. By the time I was seven, I had started an insect collection, which included such prized specimens as a scorpion my mother had killed that was hiding in our dishwasher (we were living in Arizona at the time and water was scarce). But I don’t think it occurred to me at that age that one could make a living studying insects. I was only familiar with the traditional elementary school job litany of teacher, policeman, firefighter, etc. But later, around 9-10, I had moved on to a rock collection and planned to become a geologist, which I had learned was an actual job. This morphed into marine biologist around 12-13, so I think some sort of science career was inevitable.


When I was 12, my best friend brought me along on her family vacation to Hawaii. There, we swam with dolphins and for the next six years I wanted to be one of those dolphin trainer people. So like every good marine mammal lover, I enrolled in an undergraduate degree program in marine science. Thankfully, I had the sense to try out my chosen field before committing and an internship at a marine mammal rescue facility taught me I didn’t really like caring for animals. So I skipped down the food chain, working at an aquarium, for a marine microbiology lab and finally, I snagged a summer internship at Mote Marine Laboratory working on coral associated microbes in the Florida Keys. Corals are amazingly fascinating animals and I was hooked. I stayed on after my internship to help my advisor with the August coral spawning cruise and there I met my future PhD advisor who was a collaborator on the project. As for what keeps me here, I suppose I’ll stop studying corals when the questions stop being interesting. Right now there’s still so much we don’t know about the fundamental biology of these animals that I can’t imagine switching focal organisms any time soon.


The ultimate goal of my research is to understand the mechanistic basis of coral adaptation. Right now, I’m working on the most fundamental



coral adaptation – their ability to form symbioses with dinoflagellate algae in the genus Symbiodinium. Specifically, I’m exploring how symbiont transmission (the way in which corals pass on, or don’t pass on, their algal symbionts to their offspring) affects host-symbiont cooperation and whole-organism, or holobiont, fitness. I’m also using genomic methods to look for genes involved in the evolution of different symbiont transmission modes.


Tropical coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. Like rainforests would not exist without trees, without corals there would be no reefs. Corals also provide other ecosystem services in addition to their role in supporting biodiversity. Reefs protect coastlines from wave erosion and provide food and tourism income for local economies. Climate change and other impacts are causing coral decline worldwide. Understanding how corals adapt to these various stressors will be critical for designing management strategies aimed at their conservation.


I’m a big proponent of public outreach in the sciences. Looking back on myself as a kid who had very little early exposure to science apart from my own collections, I wonder how my career may have been different had I learned at age 8 that entomology was a thing. I think as scientists who benefit from public funding we have an obligation to give back when we can. And really, what is more enjoyable than explaining your work to another person (whether that be a fellow scientist or grade school student) and seeing the interest light up their eyes when they really get it? Right now, I’m involved in the Scientists in Schools program, which pairs science mentors with local science teachers. I also help coordinate various public outreach events, including guest speakers for local schools and booths for science days.


Depends on what you define as interesting. I love to read, anything and everything, from Twilight to Howard Thurman’s autobiography. I also run and do yoga regularly. I suppose my more unusual hobbies would be reading home improvement DIY blogs and being a musical theater fangirl.


Ideal Day Off? I love to travel so I would be on a trip somewhere with my husband – even just a day trip to a new city, a new part of my own city or national park. And I wouldn’t check my email or social media accounts all day!

Please welcome Carly to Real Scientists!


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