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Sea Quest

Helen Fox ’94 seeks to save the world’s coral reefs

Looking back, Helen Fox ’94 admits she was probably destined to become a marine biologist. An early swimmer, Fox grew up influenced by her mother’s longstanding amateur interest in ocean life—as well as by the obstacles that had stood in her way. 

“My mother’s college adviser basically told her that she could either get married or pursue her interest in marine biology,” Fox says. Although her mother chose family life over a scientific career, she encouraged her daughter to explore all her options. Taking this advice to heart, Fox arrived at Swarthmore in 1990, enrolling in so many introductory classes that she joked about majoring in Intro. 

Sophomore year, Professor Rachel Merz took two vanloads of students, Fox included, to visit marine labs in the coastal Carolinas. Soon after, Fox declared her major in biology. This led her to further research in New Mexico, Cape Cod, Mass., and, before long, Australia on a Fulbright to research coral reefs with University of Queensland professors.

By that point, Fox was already well-acquainted with coral reefs. During a gap year between high school and Swarthmore, she had traveled with her family to Australia, where she audited courses with the professors who would later become her Fulbright advisers. She even waitressed on Australia’s Heron Island and became scuba-certified there, in the heart of coral-reef-diving country.

“Coral reefs are often called the rainforests of the sea,” Fox says, due to their vast biodiversity. “They are beautiful, spectacular places.” 

Vibrant and vital, coral reefs support an estimated 25 percent of all marine life, including more than 4,000 species of fish. About 500 million people depend on them for food, coastal protection, building materials, and tourism revenue, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

These days, unsustainable fishing practices, pollution, and global warming threaten the world’s coral reefs, so Fox has devoted her career to addressing these problems. For her doctoral work, the target of her interventions was the illegal but still prevalent practice of fishing with underwater explosives. 

“It’s an effective way of killing a lot of fish quickly,” Fox says, “but terrible for coral reefs—it turns these beautiful three-dimensional, life-sustaining structures into moonscapes of rubble fields.” 

Fox worked as the director of marine science for the World Wildlife Fund for more than a decade and then as the senior director of research and monitoring at Rare, an international conservation nonprofit that uses the tools of social marketing to influence human behavior. 

In addition to saving coral reefs, Fox is proving her mother’s college adviser wrong—demonstrating that in today’s world, regardless of gender, a marine biologist can balance research with raising a family. She’s now preparing to take her version of a sabbatical to spend time with her children, 9 and 13. This February, she left Rare to run a small conservation consultancy working with several nongovernmental organizations. 

In her new role, Fox will continue to bring scientific principles to bear on the complex work of understanding the impacts of community-based conservation through monitoring, evaluation, and learning. 

“In general, rigorous evaluation of the social and ecological impacts of conservation interventions isn’t really done,” she says. “We’re trying to help the conservation sector become more evidence-based.”