2023 Women of Discovery: Q&A with Emma Camp

On October 12th, WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new Fellows during our 2023 Women of Discovery Awards Gala in New York City. In a special Q&A series, we are sharing a little bit about each honoree. DR. EMMA CAMP is a marine biogeochemist, corals expert and Team Leader of the Future Reefs Program within the Climate Change Cluster at the University of Technology Sydney, where she is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow. The Future Reefs Program unites coral ecophysiologists, molecular scientists, biologists, and analytical chemists to study how environmental change shapes coral fitness and survival. Emma’s research, which ranges from organism scale molecular signatures to broad scale ecological interactions, specializes in advancing technical solutions to support innovative scientific capacity to help preserve and re-build “healthy reefs.” She co-founded the Coral Nurture Program, a new approach for caring for the Great Barrier Reef initiated by a partnership between tourism and science.

WINGS: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and your field specifically?

EMMA CAMP: I have always had a love for science and, in particular, marine science. I was lucky to travel when I was young, and when I was about 8 years old my parents took me to the Bahamas. It was here that I saw a coral reef for the first time, and I fell in love with them. I could not believe there was an underwater city thriving under the surface. I didn’t really know what a job in marine science could entail, so I didn’t actively pursue a marine biology career, and instead broadened to environmental science and chemistry. During my Undergraduate degree, I had an opportunity to do a study abroad subject, called coral reef ecosystems. It was during this trip that I saw marine biologists in action and learnt that coral reefs were fundamentally important to communities round the world but were under immense and immediate threat from human activities. It was then that I decided I wanted to have a career helping ensure a future for coral reefs. I completed a master’s back in England and got a research position in the Cayman Islands. During this time I start my Ph.D., which involved exploring the different biogeochemical services provided to corals by adjacent reef habitats. It was during my Ph.D. that we discovered extreme corals surviving in mangrove lagoons, and it led to my research journey trying to locate the worlds super corals and understand what makes them super so we can integrate that knowledge into the active restoration of the world’s coral reefs.

WINGS: What is something you would like people to understand about your work?

EC: Many people do not realise that corals are an animal. We call them a holobiont, “whole biology,” because they are an animal that lives in symbiosis with microscopic algae and other microorganisms, such as bacteria. Many people mistake coral as being a rock or a plant, but understanding that they are a living animal is important for people to appreciate their value and significance.

Our everyday actions, even if we do not live close to a coral reef, impacts upon coral reefs, because their biggest threat is the impact of changing ocean conditions due to climate change.

WINGS: What are the greatest barriers to more women working in science?

EC: There are several challenges: Patriarchal systems and procedures are still eminent in science, and they become prohibitive and a disadvantage to women and minority groups. Part of the challenge is that women and girls are unlikely to be what they cannot see. A lack of role-models that look like them makes it less likely they will see those career paths as an option. This is a particular challenge in some science disciplines, such as engineering. There is also a significant problem with retaining women in the sciences, with a significant decline in women in senior positions. Part of this is due to inadequate paternity leave support, and also support when women return to work after having career breaks to focus on family. As an example, some grant funders will not pause or extend funding to account for paternity leave. These are just some of the challenges that limit getting more women in science.

WINGS: What gets you up in the morning? 

EC: I am determined to ensure a future for my son and his generation that includes healthy, functioning coral reefs.

WINGS: What’s your next challenge? 

EC: To integrate super corals into coral restoration and to see how we can apply novel active interventions, such as coral nutraceuticals, to boost coral resilience and protection. Without new interventions, there is a real risk that coral reefs will be lost within our lifetime, at least as we know them!

WINGS: Describe yourself in three words. 

EC: Determined, Resourceful, Optimistic

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