Feature Friday: Tatiana Villalobos

Hi, Tatiana Villalobos Cubero! Welcome to ReefBites. 


Instagram: raising coral 

Facebook: Raising Coral Costa Rica

Tatiana is in the M.Sc. Integrated Marine and Coastal Tropical Areas Management program at the Universidad de Costa Rica. Her research focuses on coral reef conservation and restoration; read more about her work below! 

Give an elevator pitch of what your research/project is about.

I did finish (this year) my M.Sc. on Integrated Marine and Coastal Management at Universidad de Costa Rica, where I did work my thesis on coral reef management and restoration. Based on that work and with the support of a great team we created this year Raising Coral Costa Rica, an organization that promotes coral reef conservation and restoration in the country. 

Why is this research/project important and timely?

As we know coral reefs are one of the most important ecosystems and even so, we are losing them and all their goods and services, due to the effect of climate change and some other human activities impact as sedimentation, pollution and others. Coral restoration has become a key research platform where scientists are innovating and improving how to make coral reef interventions efficient and on time. Now, we are not just talking about growing corals in underwater nurseries, now we are talking about being there for corals, understanding ecology and assisting important processes as sexual reproduction, acclimatization and even evolution. Costa Rica is not exception on this and our work has been a strong science-based line for identifying best coral propagation techniques, problems and future needs, and that is what we are working on. I am very happy to say that we are getting support from the government, private companies and other institutions for our coral reefs future and that gives us hope, we need to work together to be effective in the long-term. Our time for acting is now and science should be the base for making decisions on what we can do. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

Our coral restoration initiative has been really powerful in so many ways, from teaching local people about coral reefs and their situation and giving hope to them, to the understanding on how coral propagation can be effective in our Pacific coast and even, the Eastern Tropical Pacific. We have learned that we are not isolated and when we talked about corals and coral reefs we need to do wider efforts and that is why we created the RED PTO (Spanish abbreviation) or the Eastern Tropical Pacific Coral Restoration Network which includes people from México, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Colombia (further with people from Panamá and Ecuador). The RED PTO give us a platform to share experiences in the region as well as identifying research needs that we need to solve together… always thinking in the reef futures. In addition, I want to say that working on this “marginal environments” with low coral diversity and reef development is a window for understanding resilience and adaptations under this conditions. Every time I am diving in an upwelling zone (temperatures can go down to 15°C or less) and reach to see that corals survive, so many questions come to my mind and make me fall in love of this amazing corals. I believe that the biggest impact of our work is that now we have a strong baseline and we are ready to keep going with rocking science that keep us on time with corals reality.  

How did you come to work in this field/project?

When was finishing my bachelor I had the opportunity to take my open water and advanced open water diving courses. One of the last dives was in a coral reef ruins, it was dark and without the marine life I was expecting, and that changed my life. After that experience, I knew that I wanted to work on coral reefs and be part of the solution, and that is how I looked for a master’s program that could give me the opportunity to learn and make a research on coral restoration. Then I got to work with the best experts ever.

What is your top graduate school life hack or survival resource?

Diving, for sure is diving! Every time I am underwater my soul, my mind and my senses are completely connected and focused on the ocean. When diving is not an option good sleeping and a mountain walk make me happy. 

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

I am living my dream, working with coral reefs have been the most beautiful experience in my life and that is why I want to keep studying and learning how to do more for these amazing ecosystems. I really motivate people to find their dreams and work hard to reach them. 

Location of fieldwork; why choose this location?

I have been working mainly in the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Golfo Dulce, south Pacific coast of the country has been the location of my main work on coral restoration. We selected this site because it showed a slow coral recovery, which is an indicator that water conditions have been getting better, at least on lower sedimentation rates, but also because coral reefs here have been persistent and have shown resilience after strong warming events or high turbidity. And after three years of work, we are pretty sure that Golfo Dulce is a living laboratory. 

What is the elevator pitch for your fieldwork project?

I have been working in our underwater nurseries for 3 years, which means going to Golfo Dulce every month (what a sacrifice! please note the sarcasm) for maintenance and monitoring coral survival and growth, with a great team! We keep learning every time we are there, about our baby corals, how to solve problems, improving propagation techniques and now, working in our 1000 corals for Costa Rica, a fundraising campaign for growing a minimum of 1000 corals that will go to Golfo Dulce reefs, where we will have the opportunity to monitor coral restoration, but also integrating local people to support field work. 

Why is this research/project important and timely?

Basically, because it has been the baseline science work on coral restoration in the country and give us a general idea about how to be effective and the needs for future work. We have been working with the main coral reef builders from our Pacific coast but also, from the Eastern Tropical Pacific and that is valuable input for the region. Coral restoration is not the solution, but is an important tool for coral conservation and management, so understanding the best practices as well as limitations can ensure that we are doing the right work. 

Best and worst parts of your fieldwork:

The best of the field work is:

  • Diving all the time
  • Having fun with the team
  • Whales songs, corals, fishes interacting with you and to see the corals to growth
  • Chocolate during surface time
  • Sleeping after diving… OMG that is the best!

About the worst:

  • Washing the diving gear (haha) 

What advice would you give for successful fieldwork?

Personally, organization has been essential for our success work as well as having a great team, people who love working at the ocean with good and bad weather, good attitude and hard working. Even when you are at paradise, you need to work hard and be able to support each other. In addition, chocolate always, always make things better!

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

Now that I just finished my masters, I am very motivated on going into a PhD that gives me the opportunity of learning more about corals.  My further golden goal is to integrate science on coral genetics and coral sexual reproduction in my work. We need to know more for being able to do more for what we love and in my case, is about corals.


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