Coral: More Than a Beautiful Sight

From the outside it may appear Dr. Kristen DeLong is an ordinary professor, grading papers and preparing lectures, but once you get to talking to her and enter her lab you’ll find a world of information you never would have guessed.

Dr. DeLong is a professor in the College of Science at LSU and has been busy with geological research for over 6 years. Entering her lab you are welcomed with old pieces of coral from her underwater expeditions, tree bark from the marshes of southern Louisiana, and 3 million year old oysters recovered from deserted wetlands. These all seem like cool artifacts and souvenirs, but if you listen to the story that goes with each ancient piece you’ll find that each one tells us about their location, their age and what was happening with the climate as these living rocks grew.

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In a species of coral called Micro-Tolls that is currently being examined in DeLong’s coral reef lab, the coral shows marks of when it was pushed above the water. This specific coral normally stays under the surface of the water, unless earthquakes force them to surface. By studying the marks and where they show on the coral reef you are able to indicate when the earthquakes hit and surfaced the coral causing the top to die off. DeLong and her students are using these Micro-tolls to study climate and land change in Haiti.

While the coral is being studied on one side of the lab, if you walk across the room to the other side you’ll find Bald Cyprus tree stumps under investigation. These pieces of Bald Cyprus’s were recovered from under the swamps buried in the sediment of Southern Louisiana.  DeLong explained “When things die they get buried in the mud. If there’s oxygen, they’ll start to decompose. If there’s no oxygen in the sediment, it starts to make methane, and the organic material gets well preserved.” DeLong, eager to find out how old these trees were, sent pieces to a friend in California to radio carbon them, or find their age, and the results she got back were astonishing. The pieces were so old that radio carbon wouldn’t work and they could not date the trees. That means the trees had been there far longer than currently believed, which can lead to lots of new information about the dates and patterns of the southern Louisiana climate.

“I’m never gonna make the 6-figures, do all the fancy stuff, but when I go out and do field work, it’s fun! I go scuba diving in gorgeous places, I go to places nobody ever goes!”

                With so much enthusiasm towards the research going on in DeLong’s lab you would think she’s been studying oceanography and geology all her life, which after shadowing DeLong for a day I found surprisingly she has not. DeLong studied engineering as an undergrad and it wasn’t under 12 years after receiving her degree that she followed her heart to oceanography. When discussing if she’s happy she made the career turn DeLong stated “I’m never gonna make the 6-figures, do all the fancy stuff, but when I go out and do field work, it’s fun! I go scuba diving in gorgeous places, I go to places nobody ever goes!” IMG_5171DeLong’s impressive background of being an engineer and having a career doing technical work for a traveling tour group only adds to her unique dynamic and excitement when explaining the work she does and how she got there.

           Coral reefs, tree bark, oyster shells, and so many other things in our physical world hold a story as interesting as DeLong’s herself. By studying something so intensely you can discover way more than you imagined, and learn about how many undiscovered possibilities exist. The work going on is Dr. DeLong’s coral reef lab is interesting, always changing, and constantly giving her, her students and observers a new thrilling story to tell.

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