Early-Career Scientist Fiorella Prada Awarded Rutgers Global Grant

Fiorella Prada in scuba gear underwater, and portrait
Monday, April 29th

Fiorella Prada, assistant professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences (DMCS), was awarded a two-year Rutgers Global Environmental Change Grant for the project, “Upwelling Systems: thermal refugia for reef-building corals in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.”

Corals of the eastern tropical Pacific live in a marginal and oceanographically dynamic environment. Along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, stronger seasonal upwelling in the Gulf of Papagayo transitions to weaker upwelling towards the south of the Guanacaste province, resulting in complex regional oceanographic conditions that drive differential coral-reef growth.

“We aim to test the hypotheses that coral reefs exposed to colder and nutrient-rich upwelling waters in the Gulf of Papagayo may serve as a refuge for corals during severe thermal events linked to the ongoing El Niño phase,” she explains.

Her team comprises DMCS faculty, Grace Saba, associate professor, and Maxim Gorbunov, research professor, who will be instrumental in characterizing the oceanographic conditions of the area and exploring the photophysiology of coral communities at the study sites.

Fiorella’s project aligns with the missions of local non-governmental organizations such as Raising Coral Costa Rica and alliances such as the Culebra Reef Gardens Alliance that are working to restore corals reefs in Costa Rica.

Her project is also timely, particularly in light of the High-Level Event on Ocean Action: “Immersed in Change” event that will take place in San Jose (Costa Rica) in June 2024. Fiorella plans to attend this event, which will serve as a platform for the exchange of best practices and successful experiences related to ocean governance and health. The meeting is part of the larger 2025 UN Ocean Conference, co-chaired by the Government of Costa Rica, will be held in France in June 2025 and is another opportunity for Fiorella to connect with global peers.

There’s also a natural affinity to this research project for Fiorella, who born in Costa Rica. She started travelling with her parents at a very young age, moving to Mozambique when she was only three years old and living there for several years.

“The Indian Ocean was pretty much my own “natural laboratory” where I started asking the first questions on the natural world, such as “where do all these shells and pieces of rock come from?” she recalls.

She didn’t know this at the time, but the pieces of rock were coral fragments. The more time she spent in the ocean, the more it fueled her curiosity and desire to continue exploring it.

Fiorella focused on turning her childhood fascination into a career, first earning a bachelor’s degree in Natural Science and a master’s degree in Ecology from the University of Parma (Italy). This was followed by a Ph.D. in Biodiversity and Evolution in 2014 from the University of Bologna (Italy). A postdoc position of several years saw her in the field, SCUBA diving and conducting research on ocean warming and acidification impacts on marine calcifiers, with a special focus on stony corals.

In November 2021, Fiorella joined Rutgers as a postdoc to work with Paul Falkowski, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, on marine biomineralization, specifically on how different marine calcifiers build their calcium carbonate structures. In September 2023, she transitioned into the position of an Assistant Professor in the department. Below, she shares more on her current research focus.

What led you to this particular research question?
In the past decade, I have used shallow-water CO2 vents in the Mediterranean Sea as natural laboratories to study how corals acclimate (or not) to persistent acidified conditions. Natural ocean acidification also occurs at upwelling systems, such as in the Gulf of Papagayo (north Pacific Costa Rica), but in these systems these naturally acidified waters are also cooler and nutrient rich. The reefs along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica are also strongly affected by marine heatwaves associated with the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which is currently affecting those reef communities. This area is therefore ideal to study the interaction between temperature and upwelling on coral reef development and testing the overarching hypothesis that cool and nutrient-rich upwelling systems, such as the one in the Gulf of Papagayo, may serve as thermal refugia environments for corals during marine heatwaves.

What are the objectives of your research?
In-situ benthic imagery and variable fluorescence measurements co-located with carbonate chemistry observations in high and low upwelling sites will be taken during two field expeditions, one during the upwelling season and ongoing El Niño phase and one during the non-upwelling season, after the El Niño phase has ended, to test two hypotheses:

One being that during El Niño, corals exposed to seasonal upwelling will show lower percent mortality and higher photosynthetic efficiency than corals in non-upwelling areas, due to colder and nutrient-rich upwelling waters in the former.

The second one being, after El Niño, corals exposed to seasonal upwelling will show faster recovery in terms of tissue loss and bleaching than corals in non-upwelling areas.

What are the potential benefits of this research?
Results obtained from this project have the potential to identify and quantify upwelling systems as thermal refugia for reef-building corals. Pinpointing these refugia can guide conservation efforts, as they serve as potential sanctuaries where corals may have higher chances of survival during heatwaves. Coastal managers can strategically allocate resources and prioritize conservation efforts towards protecting these environments (e.g., creation of marine protected areas), aiding in the preservation of coral biodiversity and the ecosystems they support in the face of climate change.

Identifying thermal refugia environments is also instrumental for coral restoration efforts, as it provides invaluable insights into potential sites for reintroduction efforts. By targeting these refugia, restoration projects can maximize their efficacy, focusing resources on areas where corals are more likely to thrive and successfully re-establish themselves.

Any next steps?
We are in the process of establishing a Memorandum of Understanding between Rutgers University and the Centro de Investigación en Ciencias del Mar y Limnología (CIMAR) of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) to develop an exchange research and training program between the two institutions. Data obtained through this project will serve as preliminary results for a larger grant that we plan on submitting to the National Science Foundation to support further research. This wider research program will incorporate automated technologies (e.g., underwater gliders) to obtain high resolution spatio-temporal biological and environmental data in this unique natural laboratory for climate change research. 

What motivates you?
I can summarize the answer to this question by citing Socrates: “I neither know nor think I know.” In my opinion, humbly accepting that fact that “we don’t know” is crucial for making good science. Throughout my research, I’m constantly faced with the fact that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know and I find this extremely stimulating and motivating. It’s like reading a book and not being able to put it down because you want to see what happens next. To be able to do this as a job is truly a privilege.

This article was originally posted on the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) website.