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Student Spotlight


Kate Boembeke

Posted on February 19, 2020 

She was awarded an internship at with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.

Kate Boembeke graduated with an Associate in General Studies at Ivy Tech Community College in December, 2019. During her studies she was awarded an internship at with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. Applicants must be enrolled in an accredited program at the undergraduate or graduate level to be eligible to apply. The opportunity is unpaid but scholarships are available. Students must have a minimum GPA of 2.5 on a 4.0 scale.

Boembeke, who was at the time a second year student at the South Bend/Elkhart campus, shares her experience in the following reflection:

Most of the work conducted by interns at the land-based coral culture facility involves daily coral husbandry (handling coral fragments to remove algae and other fouling organisms) and basic aquaculture maintenance duties (cleaning tanks and seawater systems). However, duties may also include hands-on propagation of corals using Mote’s “micro-fragmentation” technique, and assisting with experiments aimed at improving propagation methods. The goal of the Mote Marine program is to grow corals in a land nursery to adulthood to then be outplanted on the reef.

My work day started at 7:30 am with the Coral Restoration team meeting. There are approximately sixty raceways, or tanks, along the length of the facility. Each morning, we rolled back the black shade cloths on each raceway. Corals are extremely sensitive to things like pH, temperature, and overall water quality. The shades stay rolled back until 10:30 am so that the water may regain the warmth it lost overnight; however, we close them again midmorning to prevent the water from getting too warm during the day.

Water quality testing was also conducted each morning. The desired pH level for corals to thrive is between 7.8 and 8.1. The raceways are divided in sections. Each section undergoes two transfers per day—where we literally moved all the corals from one tank into another clean tank in the same section. Then, we drained the original tank and scrubbed it to remove any dirt and algae. After a raceway was completely cleaned, we started the refilling process, ensuring the right flow of water for a successful raceway. We used pitchers to estimate the correct flow by timing how long it takes for the water to fill to a specific line. A bad flow could result in a poor pH level.

Evasive algae is another challenge we faced. It grew naturally in every raceway. Since it can’t be avoided, it must be mitigated. It grows directly on the racks and the plugs that the corals grow on. If it gets too thick, it smothers the coral and kills it. Before that point, we transferred the entire raceway into the wet lab on the second floor, out of the sun, to prevent it from getting any worse. Then, when we got a free moment, we pulled up a chair, grabbed a soft bristle brush, and got to work scrubbing each and every plug in the raceway. There are four types of algae growing at the facility; the hair algae is the most common and the easiest to remove with just a brush. Sometimes we needed to use a small scraper to remove stubborn wiry algae that won’t come off with just a brush. Then there is aptasia, which stings the corals and kills its tissue. Brushing the aptasia technically removes the adult, but in turn releases more spores of aptasia into the water. So, to eliminate it we simply swipe a thin layer of glue over it, which then activates and hardens in water! We do the same thing for the last type of algae, which is called candelabra.

Mote Marine cultivates hundreds of corals, which requires genotyping—each plug gets labelled with a short series of numbers and letters. One specific type of coral grown is called palmata. It is an extremely sensitive organism that can die easily. They require the most attention in order to survive long enough to be micro fragmented. On one occasion, I worked a half day from 8 am to 12 pm, and one of my tasks was to “bash” the palmata raceways. Bashing is slapping the rack on the surface of the water in order to knock away any microorganisms or loose algae. Since palmata are especially susceptible, they get extra bashing in order to keep microorganisms under control.

One such microorganism I am talking about is ciliates. Ciliates can overwhelm the corals if their populations aren’t regulated with bashing. Bashing gets rid of about 90% of ciliates, but they can double their numbers in a half hour. In some cases, we need to eliminate ciliates with what is called a lugol bath. Lugolling is when we soak ciliate raceways for ten minutes in a solution of iodine and salt water and baste each fragment with a turkey baster. I routinely basted new fragments to keep the exposed tissues clear because the coral is vulnerable until it starts to heal and grow. 

Micro fragmenting is the big attraction here at the facility. It’s honestly really fun too! We have a special band saw with no teeth that cuts the coral like butter but doesn’t cut our fingers. We are able to cut coral “medallions” into six or nine new fragments. I know what you’re thinking, “how does cutting the coral into tiny pieces not kill it?” Well, it can if you do it wrong. but when done correctly it triggers a natural mechanism in the coral to grow. On a reef, if a coral were to break and start drifting away, the exposed tissue would alert the coral that it needs to grow sporadically in order to re-anchor itself or else it will die. We emulate the breaking of the coral so that it thinks it needs to grow sporadically, but we glue it to the topside of a cement plug so that its safe. Then within six or nine months it will be an adult coral ready for either outplanting or further micro fragmentation.

As part of the internship, I was able to go out on a boat to several Mote Marine sites off Key West. We didn’t do any out-planting but the staff members who were diving checked on and monitored corals that had already been planted in the past. The first and third locations were nurseries with PVC trees and staghorn corals, and the second and fourth locations were reefs were coral plugs had been planted. They were specifically checking for evidence of the disease that has been reported off Key West. There were mild signs of it on our off-shore site, but the closer sites were clean. Despite not diving with the Mote scientists, I was able to scuba dive numerous times with a local dive center called Strike Zone.


I applied for this internship opportunity and was accepted much to the credit of the education I received at Ivy Tech. A special thank you to Dr. Jojo and Dr. Twaddle for their support and enthusiasm for science.

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