COVID Cancellations Lead to Confidence in Coral Reef Ecology

Nicole Burt, 24, is planning in pursuing a career in coral reef science, putting into practice skills and confidence she gained from her experiences at BIOS. She first came to the Institute in 2021 as a participant in the summer Coral Reef Ecology course. She returned the following year for the Research Diving Methods course and a four-month internship as a teaching assistant for the fall program. All of these opportunities were funded by the U.K. Associates of BIOS, a program Burt credits with “believing in her career as a marine scientist.”

In early 2021, Nicole Burt, then 22 years old, was in her fourth year of graduate studies at the University of Southampton in England. She was close to finishing her integrated master’s degree in marine biology and was putting final touches on her thesis, which focused on the effects of dissolved inorganic nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, on coral growth. Burt hoped to travel after graduation and started making plans to spend the summer conducting fieldwork in a tropical marine environment.

“Ultimately, I wanted to gain more laboratory and fieldwork experience, specifically with corals,” Burt said. “My final year at university was entirely remote, so I felt like I missed out on essential practical and research skills.”

While the ongoing global pandemic cancelled many of the overseas learning opportunities she was interested in attending, the summer course program at BIOS was still accepting applications. In fact, the Institute decided to offer two sessions of the popular Coral Reef Ecology (CRE) course to help offset increased demand from students who were unable to attend owing to pandemic-related closures in 2020.


In August 2021, Burt traveled to Bermuda to participate in the second session of BIOS’s CRE course, taught by reef systems ecologist Eric Hochberg and marine benthic ecologist Yvonne Sawall. Her enrollment in the three-week course was supported by a full scholarship from the U.K. Associates of BIOS.

For nearly 50 years, the U.K. Associates of BIOS have been providing support for undergraduate and graduate students at all stages of their marine and atmospheric science degrees. Their annual scholarship program contributes toward the costs of attending summer courses and participating in 12-week research internships at BIOS. Funding is available for students attending colleges or universities in the U.K., or recent graduates who intend to continue their career in marine science.

From August 9 to 27, Burt and 16 other students went SCUBA diving four times each week, conducting reef surveys, collecting corals for laboratory experiments, and using a variety of scientific instruments and techniques to investigate coral community metabolism. Long days of fieldwork (which Burt says “did not feel like work at all”) were accompanied by experiments to measure the productivity rates of different components of the reef community, such as hard coral and different types of algae.

“By the end of the course, I’d gained a huge amount of confidence in my diving ability and practical research skills,” Burt said. “The course also made me realize more than ever that I want to devote my scientific career to conducting research to understand how anthropogenic stressors effect the central processes of coral physiology, and to have my work be directly useful to conservation and management.”

During her four-month internship, Burt (second from left) assisted the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) interns working in the lab of reef systems ecologist Eric Hochberg. Currently, Burt and Ceridwyn Hunter (second from right), a fourth year student at Michigan State University, are working with Hochberg on a publication modeling reef productivity using satellite data.

Building on the Basics

In February 2022, Andrew Peters, director of University Programs at BIOS, sent out an email to former CRE students to determine their interest in working as teaching assistants (TAs) for the fall Marine Biology and Oceanographic Research Methods (MBOR) course and the fall National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) internship program. When Burt received the email, she immediately applied and was interviewed soon after by Hochberg, her former CRE instructor.

To prepare for the positions, both of which would include extensive fieldwork, Hochberg recommended she enroll in the summer Research Diving Methods (RDM) course at BIOS, which was scheduled to run from June 13 to July 1. This course would provide Burt with the opportunity to practice a variety of underwater research techniques in an open-water setting. It would also allow her to earn both a PADI Advanced Open Water diver certification and qualification as a science diver through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences.

The U.K. Associates of BIOS and their long-term supporter, the Fishmongers’ Company Charitable Trust, funded her participation in the course with a full scholarship. In thanking the charities for “believing in her career as a marine scientist,” Burt highlighted the additional knowledge and skills she gained over the three weeks, including coral restoration, fish surveys, navigation, rescue training, and stress management.

“Nicole is a U.K. Associates of BIOS alumna star,” said Lady Judy Vereker, vice-chairman of the charity and member of the BIOS Advisory Board. “She is a natural BIOS team member and ambassador for our scholarship. Her reports are themselves testimony to her determination to be a marine scientist and educator, in large part thanks to her extensive BIOS experience.”

After a short trip back home to Sardinia, Italy, Burt returned to Bermuda at the end of August for a third placement at BIOS thanks to Axis Capital, a new sponsor of the U.K. Associates of BIOS. During her fully-funded internship, which lasted through mid-December, she supported MBOR students and worked closely with five REU interns on their projects investigating broad themes in coral reef science.

Full Speed Ahead

Since leaving BIOS, Burt, now 24, has been in frequent communication with Hochberg, as well as Ceridwyn Hunter, a fourth-year student at Michigan State University and one Hochberg’s 2022 REU interns. Together, the three are working on a publication modeling reef productivity using satellite data.

“Nicole came to BIOS as a teaching assistant but the work was so research-intensive, she was effectively a researcher,” Hochberg said. “She took her role seriously and not only helped the students she was here to help, but also dove headfirst into the research aspect of the work, to the extent that she’s carried on with it since leaving. She is conducting analysis from afar and making valuable contributions toward a peer-reviewed publication.”

“I hope that future interns will have as much of an incredible and life-changing experience as I have had,” Burt said. “I cannot thank enough the U.K. Associates of BIOS, Axis Capital, the Fishmongers’ Company, Eric Hochberg, Yvonne Sawall, and Samantha de Putron for their mentorship, my fellow teaching assistants, and all the students and friends I made along the way that made this experience so enjoyable.”