Research Unveils Secrets of Coral Reefs
Dr Phanor Montoya-Maya was awarded his PhD in Biology for his research on the use of genetics to determine whether connections exist between the coral communities found along the south-east African coast. The research has major implications for the management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
Before Montoya-Maya’s study, MPAs created to protect the coral communities were thought to be interconnected by the continuous exchange of coral larvae. His study demonstrated that this is not the case and also found evidence that the dispersal of coral larvae might actually be largely restricted to within reefs.
‘I see the study of biology as an opportunity to be outdoors, to travel to remote areas, to meet different cultures and experience the way people relate to nature,’ said Montoya-Maya. ‘All of these are my motivation to study biology. ‘Particularly, I find the field of marine biology very inspiring, I get to see things that few can see or imagine they exist.’
Montoya-Maya’s research was supervised by Professor Michael Schleyer of the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI) and Dr Angus Macdonald of UKZN’s School of Life Sciences.
Montoya-Maya joined the ORI, who registered him with UKZN and he has since become a fan of UKZN and the work being done there.
He completed his masters at Rhodes University in the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science, while his undergraduate studies in Marine Biology were done in Colombia at the Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano.
Despite finding it difficult to remain motivated at times during his research, particularly once the field work was over and the analysis began, Montoya-Maya found that there was much to enjoy about his data analysis. ‘I thought the fun part was over and it took me a while to understand that the data analysis and write-up was also fun, just a different kind of fun.
Said Schleyer: ‘Montoya-Maya is a very determined person who has put a huge amount of energy and tremendous amount of application into his research. He mastered skills which he was not familiar with and the examiners, who are top geneticists and coral geneticists in their fields, complimented him on the quality of his work, which required relatively few corrections.’
Montoya-Maya credits his two supervisors for encouraging him with their support for his work, as well as his family and friends, both from Colombia and South Africa. ‘Most importantly, my wife proved the best support I could have asked for,’ said Montoya-Maya.
He hopes his research assists resource managers to ensure that coral communities are better protected. One of his goals is to get more people interested in doing science. ‘I want to make sure that non-scientists also have the training and opportunities to actively participate in marine research,’ he explained.
Montoya-Maya hopes to continue doing research and teaching and is exploring options for post-doctoral work.
He is currently involved in the National Geographic Pristine Seas Project in Mozambique, a month-long expedition which aims to locate and document the last wild places in the ocean in order to assist in their protection using research.
- Christine Cuénod