Student has reef revelation

College of Charleston students dove on these coral reefs off the coast of Bali last summer. The dives inspired sophomore Alix Generous (top) to propose a new way to deal with coral reef deterioration.

Alix Generous never expected to be presenting research at a United Nations convention, at least not as a sophomore at the College of Charleston.

Then again, she never expected to discover a new way to deal with coral reef deterioration, either. Yet on Wednesday, she'll be presenting original research at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad, India.

Generous' research suggests that quorum sensing — a way bacteria communicate with each other — plays a critical role in the health of coral reefs. She said that if there was a way to re-create the process of quorum sensing, then it might help protect coral reefs from damage.

Her interest in reef protection began in June when she studied tropical ecosystems for three weeks in Bali with 11 other College of Charleston students. Generous said she was intrigued and troubled by what they found.

“I guess what inspired me was the diversity of the coral reefs and the reasons why they die,” she said.

Philip Dustan, the biology professor who leads the annual trip, said he encouraged the students to brainstorm solutions for the dying coral reefs after each of the snorkeling trips.

“We would go out almost every day to explore the different reefs,” Dustan said. “Basically the idea was to expose the students to as much of that kind of stuff as they could possibly stand.”

Back in Charleston, Generous was studying a pharmacology textbook — a typical pastime for the science buff — when she came across the concept of quorum sensing. This is when Dustan said she had “a synthetic breakthrough.”

“I'm planning to do some work in drug development to treat mental illnesses. That's what I'm really interested in,” Generous said. “But in order to get there, I have to study molecular structures and processes, so I combined my knowledge of all that with environmental science.”

Generous spent months researching how quorum sensing could be related to bacterial communities in coral reefs. It wasn't easy because the existing research was pretty limited. Even Dustan, who has studied coral reefs for nearly 40 years, said he had never seen research to suggest what Generous had.

“Quorum sensing is something that is relatively new,” Dustan said. “People are just starting to talk about it in bacteria. She made the jump and said 'Well, what happens in corals?' ”

When her work was complete, Generous decided to submit her paper to the SustainUS Citizen Science Paper competition.

SustainUS aims to harness and promote young people's ideas about sustainability. The organization held the nationwide competition to select three delegates to send to the U.N.'s conference.

An independent board of scientists from various fields reviewed the papers and awarded Generous first place for the undergraduate division.

Though she felt she was onto something, Generous said she never expected her research to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

“I actually started dancing when I found out,” she said.

Dustan said he wasn't as surprised to hear of her accomplishment.

“It's a lovely idea that she planted in the right place and people picked it up and said 'wow,' ” he said. “It's the result of having an open mind, not being trapped into just one way of thinking. Very often when you take students out of their personal environment, these sorts of things happen.”

Generous' achievement has earned her some impressive opportunities. In addition to her appearance at the U.N., Generous' paper will be published in the journal Consilience: The Journal on Sustainable Development, published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

“Because of its unique emphasis on youth research, as well as its focus on applied solutions, the Citizen Science program provides students a great opportunity for professional development,” SustainUS Chairwoman Louise Yeung said.

Generous said she realized how important this could be for her career. She hopes to make connections with established scientists, but her main goal is to highlight the problem of reef deterioration.

“When you go to the United Nations, it's about problems of the world, not problems of your individual nation,” she said. “If we have a healthy coral reef, then that's an indicator that the ocean is in good condition. It's a good sign about our world. It means something we're doing is working.”