Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Science superhero: Philly woman with a Ph.D. dives the oceans to research coral reefs and fight climate change

“I remember being in the water and jumping in the deep end,” Camille Gaynus says about taking swimming lessons when she was 3. “I don’t remember ever having any fear.”

Camille Gaynus working in the backyard of her home in Philadelphia.
Camille Gaynus working in the backyard of her home in Philadelphia.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Camille Gaynus fell in love with the water when she was 3 years old, taking swimming lessons at the YMCA in Roxborough.

“I remember being in the water and jumping in the deep end. I don’t remember ever having any fear.” She swam competitively through middle school and high school, and loved to spend time at the beach, boogie-boarding with her cousins. She was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Mount Airy.

Today, at 29, Gaynus is something of a seafaring superhero, a marine biologist with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles , who dives the world’s oceans, studying coral reefs and the harm an overgrowth of algae can cause.

Now, she’s back in Philadelphia working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research studies the factors that diminish the health of coral reefs. She focuses on how increases in nutrients and reductions in plant-eating fish promote algae growth and reduce reef resources.

Gaynus is also active in two organizations that spread awareness of Black scientists and their work: Black in Marine Science (BIMS) and A WOC Space, a consulting business she cofounded last year to make all kinds of work places better environments for women of color.

We talked to Gaynus about her work.

When did it occur to you that you could become a marine scientist?

In high school, I spent a summer at Penn as a Teen Research and Education in Environmental Science (TREES) student. I realized then that I could have a career in the natural sciences. At Hampton University, I majored in marine and environmental science. During the summer between my junior and senior years there, , I took part in The Diversity Project, a program at the University of California to promote diversity in the sciences. Participants trained to get scuba certification. We dove off the coast in California, at Catalina Island, and traveled to Indonesia and spent two months there.

Were you nervous when you first learned to dive?

At first, learning to scuba dive was intimidating. You have to have a certain level of respect for this. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can put yourself in a compromising situation. My first times, I was fumbling (with my gear) and not really looking around. But once I got used to it, I got more comfortable.

How would you describe your first experience in the underwater world of coral reefs?

I felt as if I was in space. There were colors and organisms I had no idea existed. Upon seeing my first coral reef in person, I was hooked and knew I wanted to see more.

What was the title of your doctoral dissertation?

Environmental and biotic controls affecting recruitment and proliferation of algal turf communities in coral reef systems. [She graduated from UCLA in 2019 with a doctorate in biology.]

What is your postdoctoral research about?

I collect algae and bring it back to the lab to look at the DNA to tell what species of algae it is. Some sites where I collect the algae have a lot of nutrients and some don’t. And some have a lot of coral coverage. We are seeing that algae is increasing in these reefs and what are the repercussions. Some algae are more harmful than others. You do need algae in a reef system. Fish need algae to eat. We want there to be algae, but don’t want it to be overgrown.

There have been reports about coral reefs losing their color. Is this bleaching a sign of environmental damage?

Coral can be in many colors, from pink to peach to purple. What gives it its color is a symbiotic relationship with algae. The coral has algae in its body. With the loss of color, we can think of the coral as being sick, and that there is something in the environment that is making this bleaching happen on a mass scale.

When the algae leaves the coral, something is [causing it to be] stressed. Either the water is too warm or there is a pH change.

The coral reefs aren’t doing well. I think of the coral reefs as a city. In a city, you have tons of different buildings and all kinds of shops. But when the reefs are damaged, it’s like bulldozing whole sections of a city. The reasons vary, a lot of it has to do with how we interact with our natural systems and the rates of change. When we talk about the environment changing, we hear the term climate change. But it’s the rate that things are changing that is alarming to us.

How can people in your hometown connect to why coral reefs are important?

Corals are extremely important, even to us in Philadelphia. It’s estimated that one out of everythree fish in the entire ocean has spent part of its life in a coral reef, whether as juveniles or adults.

Some fish lay their eggs within the coral reefs, some rely on organisms in the reef for food, and others rely on the reef itself for protection. Other species come to the reefs to find mates. These are some of the main reasons why reefs directly impact fisheries worldwide.

Yet, coral reefs take up 1% of the ocean, even less than 1%. With the loss of coral, we will see a shortage in the variety of fish available, which means higher prices for seafood.

Since your return to Philadelphia, have you been on any diving excursions?

My last dive was in Moorea, in French Polynesia in August 2019. I was supposed to go last summer, but COVID. … I like both regions [French Polynesia and Indonesia], but for different reasons. The waters near Moorea, an island about 17km northwest of Tahiti, have many more sharks than Indonesia. Indonesia has more types of corals and other organisms.

Can you tell me about the two organizations you helped organize: Black in Marine Science and A WOC Place?

Society is not welcoming to Black women, even those with a Ph.D. in biology. I’ve attended conferences where I might ask a question and would be shut down. There’s an attitude, often from a white presenter, that [essentially] says: “If you don’t understand my research, that’s a ‘you’ problem.“ But if a white person with my level of experience and education asked a question, they would be treated with more respect. In March 2020, I cofounded A WOC Space [pronounced ‘A WOKE Space’]. We were frustrated with going to diversity trainings taught by white people. There was a “lived experience” that was missing. It is an LLC that offers training and workshops to help predominantly white organizations become more inclusive.

Black in Marine Science, a nonprofit networking organization for scientists and students, grew out of social media campaigns after Amy Cooper [a white woman] called police on Christian Cooper, a Black birder who asked her to leash her dog in New York’s Central Park [in May 2020.] .

A good friend, Dr. Tiara Moore [an environmental ecologist doing postdoctoral research at the University of Washington] founded “Black in Marine Science” as a hashtag. Now, it’s an organization that alerts members about career opportunities and paid speaking engagements. We also have a YouTube channel, BIMS Bites, where our members produce short videos on topics in marine science. There’s another YouTube channel for children, BIMS Bites Kids. By getting the word out that Black people are active in marine science, BIMS is changing our definition of a scientist. I see myself as someone who can help the Black community get more involved in conservation and in our natural systems.