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Hagedorn, Mary

Senior Research Scientist

Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in the Reef Recovery Initiative are using modern human fertility techniques to help save coral reefs. We have created the science and have help applied these technologies to create coral biorepositories around the world.

Geographic Focus

  • Global  Transnational Region

Professional Biography

  • Climate change is causing our oceans to warm and become more acidic, leading to stress and often death to coral reefs around the world. Restoring and protecting coral in the wild is important, but unless we can address the root causes to coral, which is climate change, their downward population numbers and threat of extinction will continue. Using modern reproductive tools, such as cryopreservation, can help secure the biodiversity and genetic diversity of coral, thus reducing the threat of extinctions.  Cryopreservation keeps cells and tissues frozen, but alive, for tens of years, allowing for societal changes. To date, we have help create the first coral biorepositories around the world in the US, Caribbean, Australia and Middle East and have used frozen sperm to create new coral for restoration purposes. See this list for details (https://nationalzoo.si.edu/center-for-species-survival/coral-species-cryopreserved-global-collaborators)

    Our research is conducted globally and is ongoing throughout the year.  We create new tools and scientific processes in our SCBI laboratory at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology because we have immediate access to coral and excellent reef water to maintain our colonies. After we have a proof-of-concept, we then try our processes out in the field anywhere from the Great Barrier Reef to French Polynesia. Although our processes start out very complex using lasers or 3D printing, we always keep the end in sight, which is… can we keep it cost effective so many professionals around the world can do it, and can we do it on the beach? So, our conservation tools evolve into robust, simple processes that can be done one most any reef.

    Although we try to keep many projects going at one time from cryopreserving reef fish to coral symbionts, one of the main areas of interest in our laboratory is cryopreserving thumbnail-sized pieces of coral. This is important because much of our other work revolves around cryopreserving coral sperm and embryos. However, because the oceans are warming, coral are bleaching more frequently which reduces coral’s ability to reproduce. If we could cryopreserve pieces of coral, we could conserve them through the year, thus helping us to increase the pace of our ability to conserve coral worldwide.

    This project throughout the years has had many collaborators and funders for which we are very grateful. Specifically, we thank the Smithsonian Institution, the Smithsonian’s Women’s Committee, the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Greenteam Global, the Roddenberry Foundation, the Seaver Foundation, the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, the Paul Allen Family Foundation, Matthew Frank Foundation, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, Anela Kolohe Foundation, OceanKind, Revive & Restore, the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation, the Compton Foundation, Barrett Foundation, the Scintilla Foundation, the Zegar Family Foundation, the William H. Donner Family Foundation, and the Cedar Hill Foundation, the Volgenau Foundation, the Mastriani and DeWitt families among others.

Public Biography

  • Mary Hagedorn has been a Research Scientist at the Smithsonian Institution for the past 20 years. She has worked in aquatic ecosystems around the world from the Amazon to Africa, has taught many university-level classes, lectures frequently to lay audiences, maintains an active laboratory with graduate students and post docs, and is a successful researcher and active grant writer. Hagedorn's innovative, interdisciplinary work uses basic science to address conservation challenges for threatened coral reefs. She is a leader in securing a future for marine biodiversity and her unique team is the only group of scientists in the world developing and applying this modern technology to conserve coral reefs.

    Hagedorn's team has created a world-class genomic library and frozen repository that includes twelve coral species from two of the world's major oceans. There are more than 800 coral species worldwide so this work is just beginning. These biobanks provide a major hedge against extinction for corals facing the damaging effects of climate change, disease and loss of genetic diversity. In addition, Hagedorn's team is using innovations in cryo-technology to push the boundaries of physics and biology to include additional types of banked tissues, such as the eggs and embryos of many previously un-bankable aquatic organisms.

    Hagedorn obtained bachelor's and master's degrees in Biology from Tufts University, and she earned her doctorate in Marine Biology from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego. Before shifting her lab to work on coral conservation, she studied weakly electric fish. In the past years, she has received several multi-million dollar research grants from the National Institutes of Health to support her research and has collaborators in over 30 institutions throughout the U.S., Caribbean, Europe and Latin America. In 2000, she received the prestigious George E. Burch Fellowship in Theoretic Medicine and Affiliated Theoretic Sciences, in 2005 she was nominated for the Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, and is was a 2012 finalist for the Rolex Award for Enterprise. Hagedorn's work funded mainly by foundations.

International Audience Summary of Expertise

  • Mary Hagedorn received her PhD in Marine Biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and has been a Research Scientist at the Smithsonian Institution for the past 17 years. She has worked in aquatic ecosystems around the world from the Amazon to Africa, has taught many university-level classes, and lectures frequently to lay audiences. In the past years, she has received several research grants from the National Institutes of Health to support her research and has collaborators in over 30 institutions throughout the world. In 2000, she received the prestigious George E. Burch Fellowship in Theoretic Medicine and Affiliated Theoretic Sciences and was nominated for the Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation. Her passion and dedication to coral conservation is the driving force behind the Reef Recovery Initiative. Read More