Tuesday, April 18, 2017

“Let’s Keep Coral Around Because It Looks Nice”

            “Coral” is a word that causes most people to generate a similar mental picture. The image usually involves a beautifully serene world filled with an abundance of life and color. The most common thought associated with the term is the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system. These amazing ecosystems are generally known for their magnificence and beauty. Yet, coral reefs play many different but important roles. In addition to providing a habitat for about 25% of marine life, coral reefs protect coastlines from tropical storms and natural effects of waves, help with nitrogen and carbon fixation, assist in nutrient recycling, and are a source of essential nutrients (like nitrogen) for marine food chains. With so many important functions, it’s astounding that the reefs are in such shape. Oh, I forgot to mention that about 60% of coral reefs are threatened by a whole list of human-related activities. As of 2006, around 10% of coral reefs in the world have died. These startling figures have prompted emergency responses by many marine and governmental agencies. One such organization is the MOTE Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, specifically Dr. Dave Vaughan, Executive Director of MOTE’s Tropical Research Laboratory.

Dr. Dave Vaughan

            Dr. Vaughan has made significant strides in coral reef restoration. He has been working toward coral reef restoration for over a decade and has had the unfortunate opportunity to see the devastation mankind has had on coral. The issue, he points out, is that coral grows at an astonishingly slow rate. This complication proved almost too much for Dr. Vaughan and his team. He describes his frustration in the video (see below) and how he accidentally discovered the technique of microfragmenting. While transferring one piece of coral the size of a small stone to another tank, a few small pieces broke off and were left behind. Dr. Vaughan describes how he thought they were going to die by themselves. To his astonishment, the coral grew at an amazing rate and reached the size of coral that would have normally taken 2-3 years. Dr. Vaughan began experimenting with this technique of microfragmenting and discovered that it was not a random isolated incident, but actually a natural phenomenon that increases the coral’s growth rate significantly. He has since used the technique in his restoration process and believes that he will be able to take a few slow growing corals off the endangered list in his lifetime.

            As for Dr. Vaughn’s creative process, it follows the scientific guess and check method. His chance discovery of this technique pays little tribute to the time and effort that he has contributed throughout his life. Yet, one had to have put all this time and effort in to notice the changes between the old and new ways of coral growth. In addition, Dr. Vaughan had nearly limitless motivation, both internal and external, to make a new discovery in his field. The importance of coral reefs, as previously described, goes beyond the fact that they “look nice.” This fact was clearly important to Dr. Vaughan demonstrated by the fact that he refused to retire when given the opportunity. Intrinsically, Dr. Vaughan feels a sense of urgency and importance. Even after a demoralizing revelation that coral simply takes too long to adjust to the quick environmental changes evoked by human interactions, Dr. Vaughan refused to give up because of his internal drive. This situation is summed perfectly by Csikszentmihalyi when he says, “the identification of problems that hold the potential for creative solutions is partly driven by an intense interest in curiosity about the subject matter and by perseverance rooted in the intrinsic rewards experienced by those engaged in processing information.”

            Dr. Vaughan knew that his work was important and worked hard to make a change. He had the internal motivation to pursue a task that even he, himself thought was impossible at times. He happened to be at the right tank, at the right time and the rest is history.



  1. It is so interesting that the problem was identified already, and that Dr. Vaughan was working to solve it when he discovered the micro fragmenting technique within the coral's natural activity. Do you think the creativity lies within his ability to mimic that in his own work? Certainly, it is a creative solution to break the object you are trying to fix.

  2. I think it is amazing that Dr. Vaughan dedicates his life to saving coral reefs. It is interesting that he was able to find out about microfragmenting by chance, because it has been such a huge discovery. I agree with the post that it took a lot of time and effort to be able to notice the different in growth rate (since it grows so slow). I find it interesting that he has to break up the coral in order to save it. I think this post shows real world application of creativity. In life we have problems and there isn't always a straightforward way to solve them. In this case, coral is dying and growing back at a slow rate. But, with microfragmenting Dr. Vaughan found a way to increase the growth rate of coral and potentially save some species from the endangered species list.


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