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Marine Conservation Student Brings a Social Science Angle to Coral Reef Project

What do managers of coral reefs need to know about coral restoration methods before they start new restoration projects? Elizabeth Shaver, a Ph.D. candidate in Marine Science and Conservation at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, set out to answer this question in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Nature Conservancy.

Shaver was among 19 Duke students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2016-17 for training beyond their core disciplines. Her faculty mentor is Brian Silliman. She shared an update on her experience:

I worked alongside staff from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Restoration Center and The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Reef Resilience Program to conduct a global survey of coral reef managers to determine their interests in coral restoration. TNC and NOAA have a partnership that funds an online, science-based resource for managers on how to build resilience into their local reef habitats. Coral restoration is increasing significantly in interest and practice by managers; thus, TNC would like to expand the section on coral restoration on this educational website ( from 2-3 web pages to an entire module of guidance.

To determine the knowledge gaps and needs of managers in terms of coral reef restoration and guide the process of creating this new module, I worked with TNC and NOAA staff to create an online questionnaire through Qualtrics. This obtained over 140 respondents worldwide – much more than we anticipated.

From the data collected, I created a summary of results that I shared amongst NOAA and TNC staff. I also presented these findings at a NOAA Workshop to Advance the Science and Practice of Coral Restoration in Fort Lauderdale in November 2016 to an audience of 80 coral restoration practitioners and scientists. In addition to the report and presentation, the most important outcome of this work is that I was able to use this survey to create an outline and plan for the creation of this coral restoration module, which I have decided to undertake over the next year with the help of my new NOAA and TNC mentors.

A big group of people at a conference smile

In the process of creating and implementing the survey, I learned valuable skills in the social sciences that I otherwise would not have obtained in my graduate work, including training on the wording of surveys, the Institutional Review Board process and pre-testing, to name a few. The NOAA workshop I attended was a small and selective group of practitioners and scientists that I was only able to attend because of my role in this project. This workshop provided countless networking opportunities that I have since used to develop a postdoctoral proposal on coral restoration.

This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages graduate students to step away from their core research and training to acquire skills, knowledge or co-curricular experiences that will give them new perspectives on their research agendas. Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants are intended to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories.

Images: Elizabeth Shaver snorkeling over one of the main coral species restored; NOAA workshop in Fort Lauderdale