Making Your Dream a Reality – an interview with coral biologist, Dennis Conetta

By Lauren Giglio.

“That’s going to be me one day, Dad,” an 11 year old Dennis Conetta told his smiling father as they watched divers at the New England Aquarium perform their daily tasks in the Giant Ocean Tank. He daydreamed about his future as he observed the Caribbean ecosystem cohesively operate within the three-story artificial reef environment in front of him. Fast forward 16 years; Dennis is inspiring other young marine enthusiasts in the same way those divers did for him. He is currently living in Houston,  Texas working as the Lab Manager in Dr. Adrienne Correa’s Lab at Rice University, where he not only plays a vital role in identifying viruses in coral species, but also helps undergraduate students and young scientists navigate through the challenges of marine research. Dennis’s passion for corals and ocean health is so apparent in every choice he has made to further his career in marine science. Dennis is the perfect example of making his dream a reality. If you are an ocean enthusiast and wonder where your dream could lead you… read on. Dennis will inspire you to take that next step!

Tell us a little bit about you, Dennis! How did this dream of becoming a marine biologist begin?

Hi guys! I’m originally for Darien, CT (a little town right on Long Island Sound) in the US. I went to the University of Rhode Island for undergrad where I double majored in Marine Biology and Wildlife Conservation, and then continued my education at Northeastern University in the Three Sea’s program where I received my Masters in Marine Biology. My passion for the ocean has always been a big part of who I am, and definitely developed at an early age. Each summer, my family and I would spend time on the beaches of Rhode Island. I would explore all day and then read about the ocean all night – I really enjoyed reading and learning through books. Like most kids my interests started with dinosaurs, then quickly shifted to sharks and whales (I had to cover all the fun charismatic megafauna), and then became obsessed with marine archeology and the stories behind famous sunken ships. The more I read and explored, the more I wanted to be a part of the ocean world – so I did everything I could make sure that would happen.

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Where did your passion start for coral reefs specifically?

When I was in high school I volunteered the Norwalk Aquarium for two years. Every day before I started my shift at the exhibit I was stationed at for the day, I would always go to the live coral tank and just sit there and observe. There were a couple of times when I was so entranced that sometimes I would be late to my shift! I would come home and always rave about this tank, and on my 16th birthday my mom propositioned me with a pretty sweet deal. She said if I did my research and wanted it enough, the following year she would help me set up my own saltwater fish tank with corals and all. Every night I was reading books, checking out articles and asking the aquarists at Norwalk about keeping corals and tropical marine fishes. I’m happy to say that my coral tank is still thriving, and is kind of a nice physical metaphor of my career. Passion, research, and hard work allowed me to thrive, just like my little coral tank.

You’ve really taken that passion and make it your dream job. What is your latest research looking like?

I will be actually be starting a new journey in Hawaii this week for my latest research endeavors! I am starting my PhD field work this summer with Dr. Hollie Putnam (University of Rhode Island, USA). We will be going for some experiments/grants that she has there which revolve around tracking the biomineralization genes and how they are impacted in coral larvae, and freshly settled/metamorphosed coral spat from parent colonies. We are studying these colonies because they have been bleached via thermal stress as well as colonies that are exposed to acidified waters. These factors (bleaching/acidification) have huge impacts on corals, and the entire coral reef community, so this research is vital in the preservation of coral reef ecosystems as a whole.

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“Collaborations are huge in this field. Having different background, opinions, and experiences add to the holistic goal of science. Differences should be celebrated!”

You’ve been quite the jet-setter these past couple years after living in places like Bermuda, Panama, and Hawaii (we are so jealous!). What started you on that journey?

I had one goal in my mind during my Undergrad at URI – get to Bermuda. At URI, we have a very competitive Marine Biology study-abroad program for Marine Biology at the Bermuda
Institute of Ocean Sciences. This was probably the most pivotal experience in my career to date. It was the first time I got to finally see everything I had been studying about in classes up close! We were snorkeling and scuba diving three to four times a week for classes and labs and collecting data. That semester cemented all my dreams about coral reef ecology and I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do.
Throughout my time in Dr. Correa’s lab at Rice University, I have been lucky enough to travel to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico (100 miles off the Texas Coast) and to Mo’orea, French Polynesia for research. Having been to these incredibly places, it brings me back to thinking about those divers at the New England Aquarium when I was little. I want to do all I can to become that person for so many other young ocean enthusiasts. I want to tell them to keep dreaming, keep reading, and keep exploring – the world needs more people who care enough to want to do those things for our planet.

You’ve been saying that you want to inspire the younger generation of scientists – who inspires you the most?

One of the most inspiring people I have had the opportunity to meet to date would definitely be Dr. Ruth Gates. She was just such a positive and unstoppable force in the coral field. When I worked in her lab in Hawaii, her career was picking up drastically. She was busy working on Netflix: “Chasing Corals”, meeting with National Geographic, the NY Times, etc, but she was also passionately working on her latest research – it was such an inspiring thing to see her work. Dr. Gates was truly on the cutting edge of everything to do with coral reefs, and I feel honored to have worked with her. She always left me feeling invigorated after our conversations. It was a tremendous loss to the coral/scientific community with her passing that is and probably will be felt for some time. I also find it very inspiring to first hand witness this shift of a male dominated field to an influx of amazing female researchers at all levels. My whole life I have been surrounded and outnumbered by strong, inspiring women and getting to witness this progression in academia is very exciting to me. It’s inspiring to see this scientific culture start to become more inclusive – people from different cultural backgrounds, women in science, the LGBT community, etc. Collaborations are huge in this field. Having different background, opinions, and experiences add to the holistic goal of science. Differences should be celebrated!

This path has been difficult at times, yes – but my love for the ocean outweighs the obstacles that I’ve faced over the years.”

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The path you took to get where you are today can seem intimidating for those who haven’t broken into the marine biology job market yet. What can you tell the younger generation of scientists who are desperate to be involved and start a similar path?

This path has been difficult at times, yes – but my love for the ocean outweighs the obstacles that I’ve faced over the years. I would recommend the younger generation follow their dream wholeheartedly. They should be getting involved with their local aquariums and doing programs in those facilities at an early age, if possible. It’s important to know that even if there isn’t a local aquarium or ocean nearby, we impact the ocean in ALL parts of the world so helping with wetland cleanup projects or similar initiatives helps the environment but will also help them network with people involved in environmental careers. There are also plenty of summer opportunities for college undergraduates that allow for travel, experiences with different research in labs, and experiences with various career paths for them to follow.

Dennis, thank you so much for giving us an insight to your life! It sounds like it’s been a wild ride thus far. I’m thinking to the future: What will Dennis Conetta be doing in the year 2050?

I would really love to be a PI conducting my own research and mentoring the next generation of scientists. I’m hopeful that, with continued research and support from state and federal institutions, the ocean can make the rebound we all NEED to see. By 2050, I am hoping to be recording that positive change in one of my future papers!

More about Dennis work on:

http://putnamlab.com

http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~ac53/index.html

 

COPYRIGHT OF ALL PICTURES BELONGS TO DENNIS CONETTA.

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