Andia Chaves-Fonnegra: Why she is devoted to sponges
I don’t want to leave Broward County but I know that I might have to. I love the weather here, my mother lives here, I have a boyfriend here and I am on a great fitness path with my swim team, Swim Fort Lauderdale.
But my career as a research scientist comes first and when I graduate this June with a Ph.D in marine biology, my work could take me anywhere in the world.
What? Leave this paradise for sponges? For sponges embedded in coral reefs, no less?
But it’s bigger than that. I am interested in the marine bio-medical value of sponges. Sponges are relevant in medical treatments.
Because of sponges, scientists were able to isolate two chemicals in that helped develop anti cancer drugs in the late 1960’s and the HIV drug AZT a breakthough drug for AIDS in the late 1980‘s. I want to be part of huge breakthroughs like this. Throughout history, sponges were always used in surgeries.
While doing an internship in Harbor Branch in Ft Pierce, I met a NSU professor Dr. Joe Lopez and he asked me to come do my doctorate research at Nova Southeaster University Oceanographic Center. They had just completed a new state-of-the-art facility.
People think I spend most of my time in the ocean. For a while, I was diving all the time. The reality is that I dive once a month and the rest of the time I am on a computer. I have done research diving here and all over the Caribbean and a lot of fun diving all over Florida, Western Australia and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Although I train with my swim team at the Hall of Fame Aquatic Center pools, I love the opportunity to swim as a workout in the ocean. I even did an open water race in Islamorada to save the Alligator Lighthouse. I got plenty of jellyfish stings during that swim.
I am part of a small minority of people who research sponges, about 300 of us in the world. We are in contact all the time on the internet and we see each other at conferences that are held all over the world.
The last time we were together we sang songs about sponges.