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Student Interns Take a Virtual Dive into the World of Deep-Sea Corals and Sponges

October 05, 2021

From coast to coast, college seniors and recent graduates contribute to NOAA’s Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program research goals through unique projects.

An image of a green sponge on the sea floor. The green sponge Latrunculia austini was discovered in 2005 by NOAA Fisheries coral biologist Bob Stone. Hollings Scholar Kaya Mondry spent her summer conducting a literature review on biomedical compounds produced by this species. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Each year, NOAA provides many opportunities for students to work with regional science teams and academic collaborators across the country. Despite the challenges of navigating a virtual work environment, this year was no different. Four students were mentored by NOAA researchers in Washington and California. They contributed to unique projects to advance our understanding of deep-sea organisms—particularly corals and sponges. 

This year’s students included:

A map of the United States with students' academic institutions as stars, their NOAA mentors as circles, and their projects and academic mentors if applicable as squares. Colors denote different students.
Map of locations of students’ academic institutions (stars), NOAA mentors (circles), and student projects (and academic mentors if applicable; squares). Colors denote different students: blue - Harold Carlson; yellow - Kaya Mondry; red - Danny Dorado; and green - Haven Parker. Click on the map to enlarge.

Harold Carlson

Harold just started his senior year at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. He is majoring in biological sciences and earth sciences. He says, “I have loved marine biology ever since I can remember and gained a particular appreciation for the deep sea in the 5th grade.”

For his summer project, Harold helped record and annotate occurrences of corals, sponges, and other seafloor creatures from live-streamed videos. These videos were recorded during remotely operated vehicle dives as part of NOAA Ocean Exploration’s North Atlantic Stepping Stones expedition. The expedition surveyed a series of seamounts off the coast of New England in July 2021. Harold noted the type of substrate, such as rocks or soft sediment, associated with corals and sponges. He also tracked whether other species such as squat lobsters or sea stars living on the coral were present.

An image of Hollings Scholar Harold Carlson
Harold Carlson, Hollings Scholar with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Credit: Harold Carlson

In addition to his NOAA mentor, Harold worked closely with Rhian Waller, a University of Maine deep-sea biology professor. Waller served as biology lead during the expedition. Harold will present a summary of his work at the Ocean Sciences Meeting this upcoming winter. 

This project spurred Harold to ask his own research questions: “What are the broader biogeographic patterns of deep-sea corals and other benthic (bottom-dwelling) organisms?” and “Are there different species assemblages in different water masses in the ocean?” These are the types of questions he hopes to answer throughout his career. After college, Harold plans to gain more research experience in benthic ecosystems before pursuing a Ph.D. in deep-sea biology.




Kaya Mondry

Kaya is a senior at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin and is completing her biology degree. She is also minoring in physics. At the time of applying for the Hollings Scholarship, she was a sophomore pre-med student.

“Everything has changed since I’ve started the scholarship,” she explains. “I wanted to work with NOAA, but I still wanted to find a project that focused on biomedical research. I reached out to 15 different people to find a project that fit my interests!” Eventually she found Jerry Hoff, NOAA scientist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. He connected her with Mark Hamann, a researcher studying the medical treatment potential of green sponges at the Hollings Cancer Center within the Medical University of South Carolina.

An image of Hollings Scholar Kaya Mondry
Kaya Mondry, Hollings Scholar with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Credit: Kaya Mondry

For her summer project, Kaya worked on compiling all of the known information on biomedical properties of the deep-sea green sponge, Latrunculia austini. The species was first discovered by a NOAA researcher in the frigid waters of Alaska in 2005. Sponges are the most important source of marine natural products, including pharmaceuticals. This sponge produces unique chemical compounds that show promise toward treating cancer, including pancreatic cancer, which currently has very few treatments. Kaya hopes to present her research at the Hawaii Society of Clinical Oncology conference this year.

Kaya is in her element in the research realm. Throughout college, she worked in an engineering lab at University of Wisconsin–Madison and also set up classroom laboratory experiments as a teaching assistant. After college she plans to attend graduate school. “I’ve always wanted to earn a Ph.D. and I love the medical application of science.” She hopes to integrate her love of deep-sea ecosystems into biomedical research.

Danny Dorado

Danny has just begun their senior year at California State University, Bakersfield. Like Kaya, they also began college on a pre-med track, but switched to a major in geology. After this switch, Danny’s oceanography professor informed them of an internship opportunity through COAST–the California State University Council on Ocean Affairs, Science & Technology. Danny applied for this highly competitive position and was surprised to learn that they were selected. “I had never done an internship or many extracurricular activities before because I’ve always worked,” they explained.

An image of California State University Council on Ocean Affairs, Science & Technology and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary intern Danny Dorado retrieving hydrophones aboard a research vessel
Danny Dorado, California State University Council on Ocean Affairs, Science & Technology and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary intern retrieving hydrophones aboard a research vessel. Credit: Danny Dorado

When Danny started their internship, they were not familiar with how to identify different types of deep-sea organisms. To get up to speed, they pored over many species identification guides, which were created by researchers to aid in identifying organisms in the field. To improve the guides, Danny replaced old or outdated images by digging through thousands of archived photos. They located the best available ones for each species and created an organized image library for future education and outreach needs.

Danny is also creating a dynamic Story Map about areas being explored by NOAA and partners in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Despite the relatively short duration of their internship, Danny learned how to use the ArcGIS StoryMap application and work with spatial data. They manipulated various types of media to build a creative and accessible outreach tool about deep-sea corals and sponges. As an English minor, Danny has enjoyed translating technical scientific writing into an interactive communication tool for all types of audiences with interest in NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary System.

Though most of this year’s interns worked remotely, Danny reported to the office every day and even got a chance to go out on a research vessel. They helped to deploy and retrieve hydrophones, which are used to measure sound emitted by marine organisms.

In addition to working as an inventory clerk and shop assistant at a plumbing company while in school, Danny also has their eyes set on a future career in science. “With everything that is going on in my state, I’ve become very intrigued by the field of disaster relief. My internship experience also made me realize that I love science communication. I’d like to do work that lets me combine these interests.“

Check out this short video interview to hear Danny speak about their incredible personal journey and path to science.

Haven Parker

Haven graduated from Duke University in North Carolina in the spring of 2020 with a degree in marine biology. After graduating, she completed her fourth year as a seasonal intern/employee for the NOAA Sanctuaries’ West Coast Regional Office.

Over the years, Haven has helped the office in many ways. Most recently, she wrote up dive reports for deep-sea expeditions led by the Ocean Exploration Trust. The trust is a nonprofit that partners closely with NOAA Ocean Exploration and other agencies and institutions to advance deep-sea exploration and science. During these expeditions, researchers explored the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Santa Lucia Bank within the nominated Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

An image of NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries - West Coast Regional Office intern Haven Parker standing on the beach
Haven Parker, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries - West Coast Regional Office intern. Credit: Haven Parker

Haven compiled many types of information and statistics from the four remotely operated vehicle dives on or near Santa Lucia Bank for the reports. They are used by researchers to track how well an area has been explored and to better understand the marine communities. Information Haven gathered included descriptions of dive transects, notable discoveries, oceanographic data such as temperature and salinity, and records of all samples that were collected. She used this information to develop highlights of the discoveries shared in communications products, including a web story

Like the other interns, Haven’s relationship to science is unique. In college, she interned for Senator Kamala Harris’ office. “I was the only science major at that office and maybe in all of the offices,” she says. “They let me specialize and learn about the environmental problems that California faces.”

Haven just started a J.D. program at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle where she will focus on environmental law. “Growing up along the coast has made me love the ocean. It needs our protection. I think we need more people who can help to create environmental policy.”

The interns’ work supports the mission of the Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program, within NOAA Fisheries Office of Habitat Conservation. It is the only federal research program dedicated to increasing scientific understanding of deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems.


Last updated by Office of Habitat Conservation on October 12, 2021

Sponges Deep-Sea Corals