April 25, 2018


Innovators: Aerospace & Technology

Florida inventions: From the combat field to the football field ...

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Aquarius Reef Base
The Aquarius Reef Base
In August, Ellen Prager became chief scientist for a research venture with which, she regrets to say, most Floridians aren’t acquainted — the undersea Aquarius Reef Base off Key Largo. “It is the world’s only undersea research laboratory operating right now,” Prager says.

The lab, operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been in the Keys reef since 1986. The Aquarius is a 43-foot-long cylinder nine feet in diameter — “an undersea mobile home.” In 60 feet of water, it runs about eight missions a year, each lasting one to two weeks. In addition to science missions, Aquarius is a training site for Navy divers and NASA astronauts.

A recent mission included a scientist working with a state-of-the-art undersea mass spectrometer to study the role of sponges in cycling nutrients on the coral reef. Advances in communication technology allow the lab to do more virtual outreach and education with students, bringing them “into” the lab and reef. The lab also works at the cutting edge of ocean reef research.

Prager, 45, seems a natural for a job mixing marine science and educational outreach. An aquanaut, she has a master’s in marine science from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a doctorate from Louisiana State University. In college she spent a summer as a diver and research assistant, a “go-fer,” at Hydrolab, an underwater habitat in the Virgin Islands. She’s been on research expeditions to the Galapagos and Papua New Guinea. She taught oceanography to college students, teachers and seniors at Sea Education Association at Woods Hole and is a former assistant dean of UM’s Rosenstiel school. She’s been on the “Today Show,” “Larry King Live” and Fox News.

The 1960s was the heyday of undersea habitats, Prager says, but they dwindled as people realized the difficulties of living under water. The Aquarius isn’t about coral garden living but stays focused on science, technology development, education and training for the Navy and NASA. She wants more Floridians to know about it.

Ellen Prager
[Photo: Rodrigo Varela]

Ellen Prager

Aquarius Reef Base, chief scientist
Key Largo

Quote: “I want us to be working on the top science issues in oceans and reefs today.”

Author: Prager writes science books for the lay reader and kids. She has several titles in the “Jump Into Science” series. Next year, the University of Chicago Press will publish her book, tentatively titled, “Chasing Science at Sea: Tales of Adventure, Learning, and Near Disaster.”

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