On the Job

Research takes scientist off the beaten path

Randi Rotjan of the New England Aquarium collects data related to global warming and coral reefs.
Randi Rotjan of the New England Aquarium collects data related to global warming and coral reefs.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

In the decade that she has been studying marine ecology, Randi Rotjan has seen the destruction of coral reefs from a boom in coastal development, an increase in invasive species such as lionfish, and other changes in the ocean.

As a New England Aquarium scientist, she is collecting real-time data on warming oceans and reef loss in her research as she explores tropical waters near places like Belize, Saudi Arabia, and the Bahamas. Rotjan, 35, has also studied the waters off the Phoenix Islands in the central Pacific, so removed that they are a five-and-a-half day boat trip from Fiji. “But even in such a remote locale”, Rotjan says, “human-induced change is evident.”


Why the interest in Phoenix Islands as a research site?

Their remoteness has protected them from local human activities that stress coral reefs in other parts of the world. They are a barometer, a bellwether for understanding global changes.

How do you do data collection and sampling in the field?

We mostly work underwater, on scuba, doing work with our own two hands. We do studies that require counting the number and status of fish and corals along a given distance. To make these measurements, I take a camera and clipboard with underwater paper and pencil, and take notes while swimming along. Sometimes I’ll bring a hammer, chisel, or drills to put samples into tubes.

How do you prepare for an expedition to the middle of nowhere?

It’s a giant undertaking that requires several years of planning and fund-raising. For the Phoenix Islands, we don’t see another human being for a month except for the people on the boat, so we need to bring fresh water, food, and medical supplies, and all of our scientific and personal equipment.

How did you become interested in coral reefs in particular?


This was totally by accident. While an undergraduate at Cornell, I focused on honeybees, insects that live in colonies. Later, I spent time on plant genetics. With this background in biology and ecology, I found myself drawn to marine systems, and I eventually focused on coral colonies, which are both colonial (like honeybees) and depend on sunlight (like plants).

How do you cope with seasickness?

There’s no good remedy for it. The term I use for it is “feeding the fishes.” You just need to work through it and eventually find your sea legs.

What’s your must-have treat that you pack to get you through expeditions?

It’s herbal tea. I bring it everywhere. A good cup of tea, something decadent like ginger chamomile, is ultimately calming, no matter what environment you’re in.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at