Living (and Preserving) the Life Aquatic

Howard Lasker.

Howard Lasker, professor of geology and chair of new Department of Environment and Sustainability, is one of the world’s foremost experts on coral reefs

Living (and Preserving) the Life Aquatic

A house in Amherst is a far cry from the tropical ocean, and yet here was Professor Howard Lasker musing wistfully from his study.

“As I look out on a bleak winter day, it seems like, well, it’d be nice to be right on a reef now,” he says.

Lasker, a professor in UB’s Department of Geology since 1979 and chair of the Department of Environment and Sustainability, is one of the world’s foremost experts on coral reefs, specifically soft corals. “Sea fans, sea plumes … the stuff that’s waving around,” he explains helpfully.

Youthful, trim and cheerfully expansive, Lasker has taught generations of UB students and deepened scientific knowledge of corals—which are not plants but colonies of tiny marine invertebrates—and how their welfare is being harmed by climate change.

“My students and I have conducted studies ranging from the feeding ecology of butterflyfish to the evolution and systematics of corals,” he writes of his lab’s work as part of the Buffalo Undersea Reef Research project (BURR). “We use techniques that range from scuba-based observations to DNA sequencing.”

Sea fans, butterflyfish, scuba diving in opalescent waters … from Buffalo? According to Lasker, it’s not as strange as it sounds.

“There certainly are centers of reef research in Southern Florida, Australia, Hawaii,” he says, but generally reef researchers are “just people scattered all over the world who, come summer, when they aren’t teaching, head off to do their research at reef locales. So people are hopping on planes, and it doesn’t much really matter where you’re starting from.”

Thank you, Jacques Cousteau

Indeed, Lasker himself is proof of that.

“I grew up in the Bronx, far removed from coral reefs,” he says. The son of a bookkeeper and an early computer programmer, he was always interested in nature: “I’m of the generation that grew up with Jacques Cousteau. That’s what got me into thinking about things marine.”

Lasker doubled down on his fascination with the undersea world by learning scuba in the pool at his Bronx high school, Horace Mann. As an undergrad at the University of Rochester, he signed up for the U of R’s new research lab in the Virgin Islands, and followed with PhD studies at the University of Chicago, where he wrote his dissertation on the reef coral Montastrea cavernosa.

After arriving at UB as an assistant professor, Lasker set about making the university a player in the world of reef research. In the late 1980s, he founded BURR alongside his wife, Mary Alice Coffroth, herself a leading coral reef researcher at UB, then and now. In 2003, he received the first in a series of National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to study soft corals in the Bahamas and U.S. Virgin Islands.

Some Hope for the Future

Currently, Lasker is principal investigator on a four-year NSF grant to study Caribbean octocorals—soft corals—in collaboration with a team from Cal State-Northridge.

“Right now we’re in the midst of planning an April trip and a June-to-September trip,” he says. “Myself, a grad student, a postdoc and a technician, all from UB, will go down to St. John in the Virgin Islands.” There they’ll study why octocorals have been able to bounce back from the deadly high-temperature bleaching events that have devastated stony corals.

Indeed, the undersea damage wrought by climate change is dramatic. “I first stuck my head in the water on a reef in 1972, and then stony corals covered 40% of the floor—now they cover 5%,” he says.

But, he adds, “you get in the water, it’s still pretty. In field courses, I take students to reefs that I’m thinking are just so horribly degraded, and they get out of the water and they’re just so excited—the fish they’ve seen, the corals, the sea fans—and they’re every bit as excited as I was when I first went out on a reef.”

Does Lasker have hope for the future?

“In my lifetime, reefs are not going to come back to look the way they did when I first saw them,” he says. “But we have two adult children—over the course of their lifetime, if they have kids, their kids, it’s still conceivable that they’ll come back to some extent.”

Still, he believes it’s worth the effort.

“Coral reefs are the rainforests of the ocean,” he says. “It’s just so sad that we would lose that.”

Story by Jeff Z. Klein

Photograph by Douglas Levere

Published March 30, 2021