Travis Courtney is a fourth-year PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. He was born in Appleton, Wisc., but moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, where he grew up. Courtney received a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and geological sciences from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC).
He now studies coral reefs in the lab of Andreas Andersson, an associate professor in the Geosciences Research Division. Courtney’s research analyzes the environmental causes of coral reef growth and coral bleaching. We caught up with Courtney to find out what brought him to Scripps, why he has such a passion for coral, and more.
explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps for graduate school?
Travis Courtney: I chose Scripps primarily because my research interests closely aligned with my advisor, Andersson. Scripps is also an ideal choice for graduate studies because there’s such a wide range of experts to seek scientific advice from and an abundance of research and communication opportunities to get involved with both in San Diego and around the world.
en: What are you researching at Scripps?
TC: How does climate drive changes to coral reef structures? How do altered coral reef systems function? What impacts do these changes have on the interconnectedness of coral reefs and society? My research uses a combination of biogeochemistry and ecology research methods to measure and analyze the seasonal to interannual environmental drivers of coral and coral reef growth in Bermuda and the effects of a coral bleaching event on coral reef growth in Hawai’i.
en: How did you become interested in this field?
TC: I grew up along coastal North Carolina where I saw first-hand the interconnectedness and dependence of environment and society in my own relationship with the ocean. I loved exploring the local saltwater marshes and beaches, but I also saw homes affected by shifting shorelines after storms and swimming advisories posted after sewage spills.
At the same time, I was enthralled by nature documentaries depicting colorful underwater cities created by reef-building corals and inhabited by vast abundances of fishes and other marine life. I also saw footage of these rainbow-colored landscapes turning white during coral bleaching events when seawater temperatures became too warm and the corals lose their colorful symbiotic algae. These bleaching events can be deadly for corals if the water is too hot for too long, leaving once booming underwater cities dramatically changed if the corals are unable to recover.
en: What’s life like as a Scripps student?
TC: A typical work day starts with catching some waves at one of the local surf breaks before biking to my office at Scripps. I spend most days at my desk writing computer code to analyze data, drafting research findings into scientific papers, and chatting science with my office mate Ariel Pezner (who also happens to study corals!). I also help with our research group’s efforts to study the nearshore seawater chemistry of San Diego by collecting water samples from small boats or SCUBA diving to maintain data-collecting instruments near Scripps Pier. After work, you’ll often find me catching some more waves, sharing dinners at potlucks, or maybe just taking some time to relax and read a book with my cat. These “typical” days are interspersed with traveling for field campaigns to study coral reefs for upwards of a month at a time or to attend scientific conferences to present my research.
en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?
TC: As someone who is excited to spend most of their time investigating coral reefs through data and computer code (no really, data science is exciting!), it’s also great to explore and observe actual, living coral reefs. After all, it was the wonder of these bustling underwater communities that brought me to study coral reefs in the first place. The days of field work typically include some combination of deploying data-collecting instruments, collecting seawater samples for analysis at Scripps, and coring coral skeletons to study their growth rates. I find my time traveling to work on coral reefs to be immensely satisfying for both the research itself and the opportunity to work with and learn from collaborators in our research group at Scripps and around the world.
en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?
TC: I am incredibly grateful for the countless people who have helped me along the way and will mention just a few of my academic advisors and role models here. While at UNC, my research advisor Justin Ries trained me in my early days as a scientist while Geoff Bell and Greg Gangi guided my undergraduate coursework and connected me to new opportunities. I was also inspired by Scripps alum Jessica Carilli, whose scientific papers, blog, and advice were helpful for my coral coring research and for honest, insightful perspectives on life as a scientist. At Scripps, invaluable support and training by my research advisor Andersson has helped me continue to grow as both a person and a scientist.
en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?
TC: There’s lots of exciting work to be done as a graduate student, so I often find myself wanting more time to accomplish all of the science, work-related travel, and personal life things. Researching and communicating science can be very rewarding so it’s easy to spend lots of time working on making discoveries about how coral reefs grow. At the same time, I seek to balance work and life by exploring the Southern California and Baja California region with friends, family, and my partner, Lark. I’m constantly working towards being as efficient as possible to get the most amount of work done while also enjoying other aspects of life as a graduate student.
en: What are your plans?
TC: I plan to pursue a career as an academic scientist to continue my work in understanding coral reef growth, improving projections for how coral reef structures may respond to climate change, and expanding to how changing reef structures affect the services coral reefs provide to humanity.
You can find Travis Courtney on Twitter @tacourtne.
About Scripps Oceanography
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.
About UC San Diego
At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.edu.