Ben Charo ’18 Receives Watson Fellowship, Will Explore Decline of Coral Reefs

Ben Charo '18

For Ben Charo ’18 and coral reefs, it was love at first dive.

“The first time I was on one, I was blown away,” says the biology major from Washington, D.C., “between the diversity and the color and the sheer amount of life.”

Charo will deepen that appreciation as a Watson Fellow next year, traveling to Australia, Belize, and The Federated States of Micronesia on an ethnographic exploration of reef-dependent populations.

He embarks on the adventure at a precarious moment for coral reefs. They’re the “canaries in the coal mine of a world wracked by climate change,” Charo says, pointing out that nearly a third of the Great Barrier Reef died in 2016.

That’s a blinking red light, he says — not just for coral reefs and the animals that call them home but for the more than 500 million people who depend on these ecosystems directly (for fishing and tourism and as cultural resources) or indirectly.

Charo will explore that human cost through interviews and observation. He wants to learn how conservation biologists cope with eco-depression, approach cross-cultural communication, and address conflicts of interest between locals and scientists.

"I'm also really interested in learning about those costs on local populations," Charo says, "and I'm interested in how local groups perceive coral decline (if at all), whether there are plans to adapt to decline, how groups rely on reefs, and how scientific language features in discussion of coral reefs more generally."

He will be comparing the answers to those questions for each place he visits and thinking about ways to build bridges between reef scientists and local communities.

While doing a semester abroad in the Caribbean last spring, Charo realized how important it is to involve local communities in managing reefs, and how important local management is to help prepare reefs for the effects of climate change.

Though Charo had been interested in coral reefs from the perspective of marine biology, he's now considering involving himself in more community-centered efforts.

“The thoughts have been churning in my head at Swarthmore,” he says, “colliding my interests in anthropology, biology, and coral reefs together.”

Each year, The Watson Foundation fans fellows across the world to “enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership, and foster their humane and effective participation in the world community.”

Charo joins students from 17 states and seven other countries in representing this 50th class of fellows. They’ll travel to 67 countries, exploring topics ranging from foster care to opera; from the Cambrian explosion to human augmentation; from threatened big cat species to spoken word. 

The fellowship was very much Charo’s post-graduation Plan A — to the point of him not really forming a Plan B. He was in Myrtle Beach with his track and field teammates earlier this month when Fellowships and Prizes Advisor Melissa Mandos told him that he had been chosen.

“That began kind of a day-long freakout,” Charo says of an opportunity that captivates him both professionally and personally.

“This is an amazing opportunity to dive on reefs and actually see these spectacular, awesome, cool ecosystems up close,” he says. “And never more so than now."