Coral Reef Researchers Share Insights with ASCC Students

By James Kneubuhl, ASCC Press Officer

Published on February 18, 2016, Issue 1

As a component of its Mission, the American Samoa Community College (ASCC) seeks to foster student learning that contributes to the environmental well-being of the Territory. With our coral reefs playing a crucial role in the environmental health of our islands, ASCC science students had the opportunity earlier this month to learn about coral research from two Ph.D. candidates at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia who recently conducted research on Ofu and Olosega to try and determine which factors contribute to the resiliency of certain corals in the face of ocean climate change.

Ms. Harmony Hancock and Ms. Courtney Klepac spent several weeks on Ofu conducting tests on certain species of corals to observe how they are able to tolerate rising ocean temperatures. Hancock and Klepac sought to answer two primary questions through their research. First, whether corals can acclimatize to increased thermal exposure and how long they retain that ability, and second, how recent thermal history influences coral bleaching susceptibility. The two researchers are working under the supervision of Dr. Dan Barshis, Assistant Professor at Old Dominion University.

Having concluded the latest phase of their field research, while en route back to Virginia, the two researchers visited ASCC to share insights into their work with a mixed audience of students and local science and environmental professionals. Hancock and Klepac gave presentations to the class Introduction to Marine Biology (MSC 170), taught by Mr. Jameson Newtson, which focuses on the various marine ecosystems, and also to the class Ecology (BIO 155), taught by Mr. Ionatana Fa’asavalu, which studies the close interrelationships between living things and their total environment. They also gave a talk sponsored by the ASCC Community and Natural Resources (CNR) division, which was attended by students and faculty from ASCC and other local schools, as well as members of the local scientific, educational and environmental research communities.

“It‘s important for students to be informed on locally relevant marine related issues such as coral heat tolerance in Ofu,” said Marine Science instructor Jameson Newtson. “I can teach the students these same issues in class, and that is valuable, but when they hear it from off-island researchers who are studying these things in the students' own back yards that opens their eyes. When they realize that researchers like Harmony and Courtney have come all the way from Virginia to study something in American Samoa, that makes what once was taken for granted become important. This talk has also shed light on potential marine science career paths for students. Hopefully, this talk has intrigued and influenced students to want to someday do research themselves here on their own island.”

Dr. Mark Schmaedick of ASCC-CNR explained that his division, along with the National Park of American Samoa and the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources, has been supportive of coral studies on Ofu and Olosega since they began many years ago, at first by researchers from the University of Guam, led by Dr. Chuck Birkeland. Dr. Birkeland originally came to American Samoa in 1985 to study the Crown of Thorns Starfish outbreak, and while here he began also studying corals on Ofu. He relocated to the University of Hawaii in 2000, and one of his students, Dan Barshis, continued the study of Ofu corals to earn not only his Ph.D. under Dr. Birkeland, but also his Post-Doctorate degree under Dr. Steve Palumbi of Stanford University. Today, Dr. Barshis continues to lead the research on Ofu corals from Old Dominion University with the help of Hancock and Klepac.

For more information on the many sciences, marine science, and environmental courses offered at ASCC, view the College’s catalog, available online at