Ask a Scientist Series Q4 2022



In our quarterly series, we ask different scientists the same 5 questions. Join us as we see the world from a scientist’s eyes!


Bobbie Renfro

Our 5 questions for Bobbie:

  1. What do you do right now for work?

I am a graduate student working on my Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree at Florida State University in Florida, USA. I study how nutrient pollution from fertilizer runoff and sewage discharge affect the sponges that live on coral reefs. Sponges are important to the coral reef ecosystem because they filter the water around the reef keeping it crystal clear and clean.

  1. What motivated you to become a scientist?

The biology of animals, plants, and even humans always fascinated me. I was that kid running through the neighborhood creek catching tadpoles all day and spending all night watching endless hours of Planet Earth. I tried my hand at many areas of biological and medical science before I found my true passion in coral reef ecology and conservation. The coral reef is such a diverse and vibrant ecosystem with a lifetime’s worth of curious species interactions to discover!

  1. What is one thing about the ocean you want everyone to know?

We are all connected to the ocean no matter how near or far we live from it. This means we have to think about our effect on the ocean even if we can’t see it. Rivers like the Mississippi carry agricultural fertilizers from thousands of kilometers away to the Gulf of Mexico and areas with karst (hollow limestone) bedrock like Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula carry pollution from inland cities through underground rivers in the Swiss Cheese-like rock out to the sea. Making environmentally sustainable lifestyle choices helps the ocean no matter where we live.

  1. What is your favorite marine animal and why?

Pederson cleaner shrimp (Ancylomenes pedersoni) are tiny clear, blue, and white shrimp smaller than your thumb that live on anemones and clean parasites from fish on the reef. They are my favorite creatures to see on my scuba dives and snorkels for many reasons! I love that they are a little hard to see unless you look very carefully. This makes them feel like quite a special treat when you do find one! I also love their willingness to pose for a few photos as they dance around trying to decide if I am a fish they can clean. And of course, it is very fun to see these little shrimp signaling a huge angelfish or parrotfish to come get cleaned.

  1. What’s been discovered in forests that is mimicked by humans?

The uses of synthetic sponges in your kitchen, your shower, and even in surgery originate from the human discovery of living sea sponges and their soft porous skeletons. While we now make sponges out of manufactured materials they used to be entirely harvested from the sea.

Bobbie Renfro received her M.Sc. in 2016 in Biology with a focus in marine ecology from Auburn University, Alabama, USA. While at Auburn, Bobbie studied the effects of snorkeler and scuba diver presence on herbivorous coral reef fish foraging behavior in Akumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Bobbie discovered that recreational diving doesn’t really bother the parrotfish and surgeonfish much as long as we give these fish a “lunch break” each day to eat algae on the reef without us around. After receiving her master’s degree, Bobbie taught marine biology and oceanography for a college study abroad, worked as a scuba diving instructor, and worked in public environmental education. Since 2018, she has been studying the effects of nutrient pollution on coral reef sponges in the Florida Keys, USA and Bocas del Toro, Panamá for her doctoral degree. As part of her PhD work at Florida State University, Bobbie teaches scientific scuba diving to undergraduate and graduate students and has mentored twelve undergraduate students in marine biology research. Bobbie plans to be a professor at a university and split her time between marine ecological research, coral reef restoration, teaching, and public outreach. You can learn more about the weird world of sea sponges and life as a marine biologist on her website or on Instagram @coralreefbiologist 

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