Eleftherios “Ted” Karabelas grew up certain he would be a physician, but a brief stint as an EMT sent him soul searching. As an inveterate traveler and licensed scuba diver, Karabelas turned to his next great love – coral. He is now in the first year of his doctoral studies in the Oceans Department at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.
He finds the science of coral communities fascinating. Coral is a “meta-organism” – not a single living being made of cells, but rather a colony of individual organisms living in symbiosis. The individual polyps collaborate to build the rigid skeletons of the reef and to nourish the community. “Each moving part needs to be studied and understood to understand how the colony functions,” he says.
Karabelas is inspired equally by coral’s planetary significance. Coral is a “keystone” organism whose fate is central to human communities reliant on reefs for food and income. “If the reefs go, the communities go,” he says. “They’re going to be devastated by coral loss.”
That loss is tied to climate, as warming waters and increasing acidity can wipe out reefs in “bleaching” events in which the polyps die, leaving behind bone-white skeletons. His training in coral biochemistry and his experience growing coral in the lab will be essential to differentiating the climate winners from the losers.
Karabelas also loves teaching Planet Ocean – “a crash course in everything happening in ocean science and policy,” where he tries to get undergraduates just as “hyped on coral” as he is. That intersection of passion and expertise is a sweet spot for Karabelas and why Stanford is an ideal place for him: collaborative, interdisciplinary, connected – across campus and through partnerships with leading coral research centers worldwide.
“We can solve the coral reef problem, but scientists can’t play their cards close to the chest. We need to figure out the science and share it," Karabelas says. "That possibility fills me with optimism.”
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