Saving Coral Reefs Worldwide

By Shea Huse

Over the past two years, Szmant has been transitioning from being a researcher and professor to an entrepreneur after she and colleague Dr. Rob Whitehead received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which provided the necessary funding to begin their project, CISME Instruments. “In retirement, I wanted to try to get our last research invention to be widely available to other researchers working with corals,” she says.


Previously all research and sampling done on corals meant removing corals from their natural environment or breaking off pieces of the organism, which can lead to disease or death. NOAA requested a proposal in 2009 for new technologies that would improve underwater research.

“We proposed developing a new instrument to measure these metabolic vital signs of corals on corals in place and without doing them any harm. When NOAA selected our idea, CISME began. After lots of hard work and refinement, we have our novel diver-portable underwater respirometer, which we named CISME for Coral In Situ Metabolic,” explains Szmant.

For anyone, starting a new business is a challenge, but after building an entire career as a researcher and educator, Szmant had to begin the transition into being an entrepreneur. “I am still working on this, and honestly, I would add reluctantly. I am a basic science person with no business experience other than negotiating prices for instruments I have bought over the years,” Szmant confesses. She adds that they are learning as they go but also that working in the Cape Fear region has greatly contributed to her success. A variety of local people and businesses have helped, but without the team in the machine and electronic shops at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science, they would not have been able to build CISME.  

Last year Szmant and CISME were selected to participate in the Cucalorus Film Festival business angle of the festival called Cucalorus Connect. CISME was one of the entries selected for the 10×10 Challenge. Their company was paired with a video production company to create a video that will endorse their product while also crowdsourcing “to come up with enough funds to cover the costs of the parts to build an instrument to give away to a deserving third-world research group working on coral reef management and protection,” says Szmant.

Even in retirement, Szmant continues to educate by giving invited lectures about the tragic condition of the ocean’s coral reefs. She also trains colleagues and teaches graduate students at other universities about CISME so they can use her technology in their research, and she plans to lead more CISME training workshops to spread access and knowledge so her invention can be used by more and more researchers. She explains that their “biggest stumbling block is learning how to attract investment, and we have been told that what we need is a social investor; a person who is interested more in doing good in the long run than in immediate profit.”

As a respected professor and researcher, and as an up-and-coming entrepreneur, Szmant continues to find success in the Wilmington community, but her “personal interest is in getting instruments into the hands of as many marine scientists as possible so that the data they generate can help protect and conserve what is left of the Earth’s coral reefs.” Dr. Alina Szmant is clearly dedicated to working to help save the coral reefs in any way she can.

Dr. Alina Szmant is a retired University of North Carolina Wilmington professor of marine biology whose research and teaching focused on coral reefs. Now as an entrepreneur and innovator she is using her expertise to develop a product to improve the ways we are able to research and collect samples and data on corals.

Szmant grew up in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and she has always been an ocean lover. As an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico, she spent a summer in a small marine lab in La Parguera; it’s where she embarked upon her first dive which ultimately led to her focusing her research on corals. “I was so scared until I saw the first parrotfish swim by, and then I was hooked,” says Szamant. “I changed my major from chemistry to marine biology, and as I began my research about tropical ecosystems, I was drawn more and more towards coral reefs and the corals that build them.” 

Szmant went on to earn her master’s degree from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and her Ph.D. in Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography from the University of Rhode Island. She taught marine biology at the University of Miami before coming to UNCW in 1999 where she built her impressive career. Additionally, in 2013 Szmant received the American Association of Underwater Divers Scientific Diving Lifetime Achievement Award.