FAU’s Andia Chaves Fonnegra, Ph.D., Lands Coveted NSF CAREER Award

Andia Chaves Fonnegra, NSF CAREER Award, Coral Reefs, Diving, Florida, Caribbean

Andia Chaves Fonnegra, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology in FAU’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

By gisele galoustian | 2/13/2023

From tourism to fisheries to protection from storm surges, coral reefs provide vital ecosystem services to coastal communities. Most reefs in the Caribbean Sea, however, have experienced dramatic decreases in coral cover due to disease, coral bleaching and environmental pollution. Drastic mortality of coral reefs, and the low probability of recovery to previous coral states, call for a need to understand how the “new coral reef” community can sustain biodiversity.

Recent studies demonstrate that coral reefs shifting from complex coral-dominated communities to macroalgae dominance are unstable and may enhance sponge-dominated reefs; a state becoming common in the Caribbean Sea. How do sponge-dominated reefs function and change the ecosystem structure? And how do they continue to respond to thermal stress?

To answer these questions, Florida Atlantic University’s Andia Chaves Fonnegra, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology in FAU’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, has received the coveted National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career (CAREER) award. The CAREER program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

With the five-year, $974,100 NSF grant, Fonnegra will develop fundamental ecological research to understand the functional ecology and biodiversity patterns in sponge-dominated coral reefs. The project, titled "CAREER: Integrating Ecological Principles of Sponge-Dominated Coral Reefs in the Education Curricula," will integrate ecological principles of these shifted coral reefs’ states into educational courses.

“Our current coral reef ecology curriculum is based on how previous healthy coral-reef communities were structured and lacks a complete understanding of how existing coral reefs are changing and shifting into new states beyond macroalgae, which is fundamental to predicting the function and evolution of these changing biodiverse ecosystems,” said Fonnegra.  

The project will focus on an integrated research and education program to evaluate and predict how current and future Caribbean and Florida Coral reefs are changing with a central focus on benthic space competitive interactions, symbiosis, and facilitation. Findings will provide an understanding of how sponge-dominated reefs persist under thermal anomalies and may sustain coral reef biodiversity or aid local extinction.

“Species interactions alter how each species adapts to change and constitute one of the essential forces structuring ecological communities. However, most theories and experiments on coral reef dynamics do not provide enough information to predict coral reef benthos, flora and fauna attached to the seafloor, succession and evolution,” said Fonnegra.

Researchers will evaluate patterns through 15 years of thermal anomalies in two locations, and through three years across the Caribbean Sea and Florida, from tropical latitudes in the southern Caribbean (Panama and Barbados) to subtropical latitudes in the Florida Coral Reef Tract.

As part of the project, Fonnegra will develop mathematical models to predict future changes at a regional level. In addition, she will employ a new technological approach, The BeamSea True-Color Lidar, and fluorescence imager, to discriminate among similarly colored species and automate the collection of species and species interactions data.

Ecological principles of sponge-dominated reefs will be integrated into education curricula to foster the growth of future scientists and/or citizen scientists at local, regional and global levels. A high school curriculum on coral reef ecology principles in English and Spanish will be developed for teachers to download and use in their classrooms. The outreach component includes open seminars for students and faculty to discuss the competitive myth, aiming to improve the female perception of high-level jobs in academia, research and policy. In addition, the project will offer youth in foster care the opportunity to explore career paths in marine science.

Fonnegra previously conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Mississippi, University of the Virgin Islands and Nova Southeastern University, where she received her Ph.D. in oceanography and marine biology. She holds an M.S. degree from Universidad Nacional de Colombia and a B.S. degree from Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano, both in marine biology. Fonnegra was a Gulf Research Program (GRP) Fellow in 2019, UNESCO-L’Oréal Young Women in Science Fellow in 2011 and a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Fellow in 2006.

At FAU, she oversees the FAU Laboratory of Integrative Marine and Coastal Ecology, which focuses on understanding mechanisms that underlie changes in marine and coastal communities. Her research goal is to enhance management of marine ecosystems by determining how ecological interactions are altered by anthropogenic activities and global impacts such as climate change and pollution.

Dr. Fonnegra Diving