Cardinal Cadence Spring/Summer 2012

The fragile world beneath

Joanie Kleypas dives to inspect coralJoanie Kleypas ’78 knew from childhood that she wanted to become a marine biologist, a passion spurred by her family and her fascination with Jacques Cousteau. Growing up in Groves, she tagged along with her older brother, Kenny, on fishing and diving trips in the Gulf of Mexico. She remembers those trips as risky, since they weren’t yet dive certified, but enthralling. “He was kind of a crazy guy, but he introduced me to a world I probably wouldn’t have been able to see as such a young girl.”

As a young adult, Kleypas continued exploring the world of marine biology as an oceanography major at Lamar University. Her broad-based education at Lamar laid the foundation that helped Kleypas build a career as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the impact of climate change on coral reef ecosystems.

At Lamar, Kleypas said, she learned from great professors who inspired her to keep going. “Professor Richard Harrel was my idol. He had a can-do attitude; he was funny, very up-to-date on issues; and he was outspoken. He was one of those wake-up professors— open your eyes; look around; there’s a lot of stuff you don’t know. Go out there, and figure it out.” With the same type of hands-on, figure-it-out approach to science she encountered at Lamar, Kleypas has made important, although sometimes alarming, discoveries.

After completing her bachelor’s degree at Lamar, Kleypas earned her master’s at the University of South Carolina studying fish ecology. She then won a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue her doctorate at James Cook University in Australia, where she focused on the Great Barrier Reef. After earning her Ph.D., Kleypas took a position with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and began exploring how coral reefs have affected climate in the past. Frightening coral bleaching episodes in the mid 1990s then inspired her to shift her focus.

“Since I was at a climate center and coral bleaching was such a consequence of climate change, I was in the right place at the right time. I started looking at how sea–surface temperatures are going to change in the future and what that means in terms of the future of coral reefs,” Kleypas said.

Much of Kleypas’ work at the time relied on computer modeling. A mentor challenged her to model chemical changes in the ocean caused by the addition of carbon dioxide. That led to her groundbreaking work on ocean acidification. Additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by seawater, causing chemical reactions that produce carbonic acid and reduce the pH of the seas. When conditions become too acidic, coral reefs and the organisms that depend on them may be threatened by a reduction in the calcification rates that corals need to grow.

“It’s a combination of curiosity-driven science and problem-driven science. I always like to say science is simply detective work. I get a lot of questions now about what’s going to kill coral reefs first. Is it going to be temperature increases, or is it going to be acidification? Really, they’re both occurring at the same time. They’re both caused by carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere,” Kleypas said.

Her findings served as a wake-up call to the scientific and broader communities. Kleypas visited Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and testify before Congress about the issue, which led to passage of the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act in 2009. When she began her research on the topic in 1997, Kleypas said, she could count on two hands the number of scientific papers on ocean acidification. Now she cannot keep up with the research being published worldwide.

“It’s very exciting. I think researchers are more and more solidified that this is an important issue, and we’ve got to get to the bottom of this pretty quickly,” she said.

Fellow scientists are not the only ones to recognize the importance of Kleypas’ work. Last year, she won a prestigious Heinz Award, administered by the Heinz Family Foundation, recognizing outstanding individual contributions to important issues including the environment and public policy. Kleypas also was a 2008 Fellow of the Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University and serves on multiple national and international panels to address issues of climate change and marine ecosystems. She continues to work as a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Her husband, Steve Worley, also is an oceanographer at the center, where he works on data management for a variety of projects. She likes to joke that the Rocky Mountain location gives her equal access to all oceans.

In addition to her continuing work on ocean acidification and coral reefs, Kleypas is broadening her research into methods of improving marine conservation efforts. “None of us want to just research the demise of an ecosystem. Many of us would rather switch gears and start looking for solutions,” Kleypas said. She works with organizations such as the Nature Conservancy to determine the best locations to create marine protected areas.

Kleypas also is exploring with colleagues around the world the concept of “underwater gardening” on coral reefs by growing friendly algae and marine plants nearby to absorb some of the harmful carbon dioxide. “At least locally, we may be able to do things that help coral reefs through these crises until we find a solution to rising greenhouse gases,” she said. Of course, climate change is not the only threat to coral reefs. In tropical latitudes, deforestation can cause sediment to smother nearby corals. Kleypas is preparing a project in Costa Rica to try to revive a reef damaged by sedimentation. “Science is always a lot better when it’s fun and optimistic. Who wants to do doomsday all the time? It’s a balance. In the coral reef community, there was so much bad news for a couple of decades that people were getting really depressed. Now there’s more of a can-do attitude, and people are trying different things.”

Optimism about the ability to solve scientific problems is something Kleypas gained from her Lamar professors and something she tries to pass on to younger scientists she mentors. She is in the early stages of mentoring current Lamar biology major Elisabeth Maxwell. Lamar faculty and staff members helped the two connect because Maxwell, a David J. Beck Fellow in 2011 and 2012, also plans a career in marine biology. “This is what we do. Mentoring is a huge part. I had great mentors at Lamar,” Kleypas said. With Harrel, “we were out there doing research that wasn’t even published yet. Not many undergraduates get that opportunity.”

Kleypas said she realized once she went on to graduate school that Lamar had prepared her with an excellent education in a relaxed atmosphere that she enjoyed. Lamar also provided an educational home for her family. She was one of seven children, and all but one of her siblings at least started college at Lamar.

She first discovered her love of scuba diving on those risky trips into the Gulf of Mexico with her brother and still loves exploring underwater places when she can. That continuing pursuit of what’s cool, what’s interesting and what questions need answers has kept Kleypas passionate about her work. “You figure out what you like, what really turns you on, and if you always stay true to what you care about, you’re always going to do a good job,” she said. “I think that’s what I’ve done, and it’s not always been easy, but I’ve never regretted it. It takes you to some really nice places.”

by Beth Gallaspy

May 2012