Meet the Speakers: James W. Porter
James W. Porter is the Josiah Meigs Professor of Ecology Emeritus at the University of Georgia. He specializes in the biology and ecology of coral reefs. He is currently conducting research on Floridian and Jamaican coral reefs. He is featured as a principal cast member and science advisor in the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral.
1. When did you first fall in love with coral reefs?
I actually started my life as an entomologist, studying insects. But, after my senior year in college, I got a summer job with a marine biologist. We wound up in Panama. I took a scuba dive there, which was my first open-water ocean dive, and I fell in love with what I had just seen. When I emerged from that dive, I decided to change my focus from insects to coral reefs. The rest is history, as they say!
That first visit to Panama was in 1969; I have been back since. The changes are dramatic. The kinds of changes that we’re going to be discussing during the LSU panels are global in scope. These problems are not concentrated in one place. They are a worldwide problem.
2. What do you consider to be the most important aspect of your work?
As I near the end of my career, I feel that the most important thing is communication. I used to feel that the application of science could solve the world’s problems. I now believe that the communication of science is the most important, but often overlooked, first step toward any solution. The basic science is known. The question now is, “What can we do about it, how fast can we do it, and how can we get others to understand the urgency of acting now?”
Chasing Coral begins with an interview of Richard Vevers, an advertising executive. He’s correct in saying the facts are there, we just need to get the word out.
Most scientists share their science, but they generally do so in small circles of graduate students and professionals. I’ve chosen, for one reason or another, to share my science in much broader contexts. First, by accepting large-classroom teaching assignments at all of the universities I have been at; second, by testifying five times before Congress (and once before the U.N); and lastly, by contributing to this film. That decision was especially rewarding because our documentary won the Audience Choice Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
I think in general, the selection process that creates scientists and rewards them has, in the past, been mostly based on their research prowess. But recently, the National Science Foundation has introduced a new funding criteria called, “Broader Impacts.” In this section of the proposal, you are asked to explain why others, outside your community of research specialists, would be interested in your work. We’re beginning to develop a new generation of scientists who can think more broadly about their science. I think that’s a good thing.
3. What do you think is the most important impact that coral reef loss will have on humans?
Recently, coral reefs have provided an unusually large number of highly effective cancer-fighting drugs. We actually think we know why. Coral reefs are densely occupied and biodiverse environments. Over hundreds of millions of years, many reef organisms have developed chemical defenses to allow them to survive in this competitive environment, and these chemical defenses are sometimes secondarily useful to humans.
Two specific examples are bryostatin, produced by marine bryozoans, and prostaglandin, found in sea fans. These chemicals defend marine organisms from encroaching neighbors. They often kill cancer cells as well. Coral reefs are pharmaceutical cornucopia. Most people don’t realize it but 25 percent of drugs in a modern drug store come from natural products. Ten percent of these come from the sea.
4. Tell us about the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary reefs here in the Gulf of Mexico. Have you worked on those reefs before?
Yes, I have. It’s one of the Caribbean reefs that was doing pretty well, up until a few years ago. Its isolation benefitted the reef considerably. But now, with oceanic temperatures heating up everywhere, even the Flower Gardens are affected by this same phenomenon of coral bleaching that we’ve seen worldwide.
This is the interesting thing about coral bleaching: coral bleaching is not automatically a death sentence the first year. If the temperature drops, corals can regain their symbiotic algae and survive.
The problem comes when we have back-to-back bleaching years. What we are so worried about now is that even our most conservative global climate change models show that back-to-back bleaching years will become more common in the near future.
Coral reef decline has a direct and immediate impact on us. Many commercially valuable tropical fish and shellfish spend some of their life cycle on coral reefs. Lobsters are an example of shell-fish that will be affected. Grouper and snappers are good examples of fin-fish.
5. What is the most important thing students interested in coral reef ecology should know when entering your line of work?
Whatever you do, follow your passion! I would say to science majors that all of the core sciences underpin marine science: math, physics, chemistry, and biology. Take these, but also take courses in communication and communication technologies. Getting the word out is as important as getting the information. The pathway to a career in marine science is really diverse. Find your “true-north” and head in that direction. To create that pathway, follow your dreams. The world needs you!