A strange new state symbol

Professor Koty Sharp makes the case for state coral


Emily Dvareckas / The Hawks' Herald

Dr. Koty Sharp displays the skeleton of Astrangia poculata.

Coffee milk, the red chicken and the quahaug are all symbols of the state of Rhode Island. From the state ship to the state appetizer, there are plenty of Rhode Island staples that make this state unique, but what about a state coral? 

Koty Sharp, an associate professor of biology, marine biology and environmental science at Roger Williams University, is on a mission to make the Astrangia poculata the official state coral of Rhode Island. This coral serves as an important piece of Rhode Island as it is the only species of coral in New England. 

Sharp has spent many years studying Astrangia poculata, a coral that can withstand a range of temperatures, unlike tropical coral. It is similar to those found in the Florida Keys but has distinct differences that make it an ideal specimen for research. Similar to tropical coral, the species deposits a hard skeleton that contains the animal inside, but these are much smaller.

“They are different from tropical corals in a lot of other ways too. It’s those differences that actually make them really ideal for using as kind of model organisms to learn more about the diseases and coral bleaching problems that tropical coral face and identifying new ways to try and address those problems and even come up with cures,” Sharp said. 

RWU students play an important role in Astrangia poculata research as they work with the coral in the Wet Lab, which is located in the MNS building on campus. The research team is student-led and they work on different topics regarding the coral.

“We are using it to learn more about the microbiology of coral disease and that is the research that really applies to the problems in tropical corals,” Sharp said. “We are learning a lot about how corals can recover from disease and disturbance by using Astrangia and some microbiology experiments.”

Senior marine biology and applied mathematics major Natalie Danek has been working in Sharp’s lab since May 2019. Danek said she would love to continue research on coral after working as a marine educator. She values her time spent in Sharp’s lab and said she developed valuable laboratory skills.

“I love the problem solving aspect of research and how everyday is something new,” Danek said. “It is also fun to be able to work through the development of methods for certain things that have never been done before, rather than just following an already written procedure.”

Sharp began her journey to make the coral an official symbol by contacting state Rep. Terri Cortvriend, who was excited to bring this topic to the state legislature. Cortvriend sees the coral as an opportunity to make a platform for a new K-12 STEM curriculum with a focus on issues like climate change. 

Cortvriend and Rhode Island state Sen. Jim Seveney proposed bills to the Rhode Island House and Senate. Sharp then testified in front of the Senate on March 3. She collected letters of support from community members in Rhode Island.