Ecosystem Assessment and Restoration: Alina Corcoran

The head of the Harmful Algal Blooms subsection relishes the process of scientific inquiry.

Alina CorcoranAlina Corcoran
Harmful Algal Bloom Research
St. Petersburg, FL


Biology, with a specialization in marine science,
Boston University

M.S. Marine Science,
University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa/Dauphin Island Sea Lab

Ph.D. Biology,
University of California, Los Angeles


I began to manage the Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) subsection in June 2011. I came to FWC with relevant experience managing projects and conducting ecological research. My research experience is rather diverse. For example, I have studied the responses of bottom-dwelling microalgae to ultraviolet radiation in very shallow coastal lagoons; I have led adaptive field campaigns to monitor storm water and wastewater plumes in Southern California; and I have worked to design algal biofuel systems in the deserts of New Mexico. I enjoy research with clear applications to ecosystem management and sustainability.

What are you working on now?
Right now, the HAB group is gearing up for two monitoring projects: spring and summer time sampling in Tampa Bay and time-series sampling of our north and south run stations in Pinellas County. I am also working with members of my team to develop new tools, including specialized growth chambers called chemostats and an underway sampler for mapping of surface water features.

How is this information beneficial?
The monitoring projects are quite different. The Tampa Bay project focuses on seasonal blooms of Pyrodinium bahamense. We are asking questions like these: What environmental factors preclude blooms? Which organisms co-occur with P. bahamense?  What traits allow for P. bahamense to dominate the phytoplankton community and persist? In contrast, the time series sampling is being set up to monitor longer-term (interannual and interdecadal) changes in phytoplankton communities in southwest Florida. This program will be a pilot study for building a statewide time series program.

What is your typical workday like?
Much to my chagrin, my typical day is spent in my office--working on datasets or papers at my computer, planning projects with my team, or answering media inquiries. I love when I carve out time for field and lab days.

Do you have a favorite species to study?
My favorite species changes on a regular basis. However, I tend to have an affinity for diatoms, the ornate cells donned with silica houses.

What is your greatest accomplishment?
My greatest accomplishment is planting seeds of inquiry in young scientists and children. I enjoy training others and like to foster wonder in the natural world.

What do you like most about your career?
I most enjoy the process of hypothesis-driven inquiry--following theory-based predictions through tests of those predictions.

What do you like least about your career?
I resent that people assume I study whales when I say I am a marine biologist. Darn charismatic megafauna!

Did anyone inspire you to become a scientist?
Many people have served as sources of inspiration throughout my career. Early on, Rachel Carson gave me the motivation to link science and societal change. Later, my mentors were many, but all researchers that led robust, exacting programs and loved to teach.

When did you choose this career path?
I chose this career path when I was in tenth grade; more specifically, while I was flushing a toilet. That toilet was on the SSV Corwith Cramer, a tall ship used by the Sea Education Association. I was sailing with a crew and about 20 other students around Cape Cod, Massachusetts. After I flushed, the water in the toilet was flashing rays of light. Astounded, I ran above to learn about bioluminescence. I was sold – it was the most powerful single moment of my life.  

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in science?
I cannot imagine my life without some facet of science. If I were not involved in research, I would pursue environmental education. I have also always wanted to use taxonomy in forensics. I am just waiting for someone to ask me to use diatom frustules to distinguish where bodies were drowned. I could train the actors on NCIS.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?
I would advise them to take a quantitative biology class, fast.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I enjoy hiking, cycling, cooking, reading, making pottery, and sanding and refinishing furniture. The latter grounds me.

FWC Facts:
Numerous marine species, like blue crabs, redfish, white shrimp, stingrays, tarpon, are found more than 100 miles upstream in the freshwater portions of the St. Johns River.

Learn More at AskFWC