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Reef Encounters: Dr Michael Sweet

As part of International Year of the Reef, we're speaking to people who work with coral reefs, from filmmakers to fish taxonomists. Dr. Michael Sweet, researcher and lecturer at the University of Derby, tells us how 'with a bit of luck and a lot of work' we can save coral reefs around the world.

What is your typical day?

As a full-time academic, each of my days is very different. Like all in my position, a good 20% of my time is taken up by administration. I am then in charge of a large and very active research team with five Ph.D. students and three Post Doctorates and so time is spent in meetings with these early career researchers and in the field, assisting with sampling when possible. Of course, I try to cram in some teaching along the way as well and make myself available to the even younger minds which need inspiring.

Then, and only then, I might get in the lab myself to start on a new topic or write up some of the work we have already analysed.

  • Dr Michael Sweet 01, Dr Michael Sweet collects snails for study from Porites Turbinaria, Dr Michael Sweet
    Dr Michael Sweet collects snails for study from Porites Turbinaria, Dr Michael Sweet

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be in some form of zoological career. My mum was a countryside ranger so I spent many an evening and weekend in the wilds of my home county of Lancashire. I may not have been exactly close to the marine environments I now study I grant you, but we spent a few holidays by the coast which inspired me further.

When University came around I toyed around between choosing marine biology or zoology and opted for the latter. I then spent four years traveling around the world working on a variety of projects from individual identification in whale sharks, to research on the most endangered bird at the time, the black robin of the Chatham Islands. I then moved in the direction of getting a Ph.D. and this was where the coral work started.

  • Dr Michael Sweet 02, Dr. Sweet is well known for his work on coral diseases but also takes part in a variety of other studies, Dr Michael Sweet
    Dr. Sweet is well known for his work on coral diseases but also takes part in a variety of other studies, Dr Michael Sweet

What inspires you in your work?

My inspiration starts with the teaching of the undergraduate students who really show the passion for their chosen career and ends, if it ever really ends, with my team of excellent researchers who work tirelessly to answer some very interesting questions.

Every day is different, every day is exciting, and every day we work to try and make our world a better place. A better place for us as humans but also a better place for the rest of the organisms we share our home with, be they the smallest viruses or bacteria, the corals or sponges, or the fish in our oceans and rivers.

  • IMG_1418, 'Every day is different, every day is exciting, and every day we work to try and make our world a better place', Dr Michael Sweet
    'Every day is different, every day is exciting, and every day we work to try and make our world a better place', Dr Michael Sweet

What would your message for the future of reefs be?

To be honest, it's looking bad but we should not lose hope. If we all do our bit we can certainly make a difference and hopefully, with a bit of luck and a lot of work we can preserve reefs for future generations. They may not look exactly how we know them to be but I do believe that life will find a way and corals as a whole will keep on fighting.

  • bleaching, Coral bleaching occurs when coral expels the algae they rely on to survive from their tissues, Dr Michael Sweet
    Coral bleaching occurs when coral expels the algae they rely on to survive from their tissues, Dr Michael Sweet

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

I should probably say the corals themselves but I have a soft spot for octopuses – so beautiful, so clever – I just think they are so amazing.

  • Dr Michael Sweet 03, Above-average sea temperatures caused by global warming have been identified as the leading cause of coral bleaching incidents, Dr Michael Sweet
    Above-average sea temperatures caused by global warming have been identified as the leading cause of coral bleaching incidents, Dr Michael Sweet

What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?

A whole container full of toilets sunk in the Red Sea was a little weird.

  • Dr Michael Sweet 04, In 2016, bleaching events killed between 29% to 50% of coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Dr Michael Sweet
    In 2016, bleaching events killed between 29% to 50% of coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Dr Michael Sweet

What kit do you use?

Cannon PowerShot G9X with custom housing.

  • Dr Michael Sweet 05, 'If we all do our bit we can certainly make a difference and hopefully, with a bit of luck and a lot of work we can preserve reefs for future generations', Dr Michael Sweet
    'If we all do our bit we can certainly make a difference and hopefully, with a bit of luck and a lot of work we can preserve reefs for future generations', Dr Michael Sweet

What’s the next big thing for your work?

We’re exploring the implications of ‘human-assisted evolution’ with some collaborators with regard to restoration efforts for some areas. In particular, we are focusing on the importance of coral's bacterial communities known as the microbiome in coral resilience and susceptibility to aspects of climate change.

Who’s your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

I always struggle with this. I guess my obvious hero would be my old mentor and supervisor Professor John Bythell who took me in to complete my Ph.D. and nurtured my interest in corals and the diseases which plague them.

However, there have been a number of others whose work inspire me on a daily basis and not just the well-established researchers. My students keep my passion alive and make me feel that what we do is worthwhile.

Furthermore, the dedication I see from other groups and fields of interest such as hobbyists and aquarium curators is also heroic. Their knowledge is second to none, in what makes a coral tick and how to look after them and it’s these guys who may well be the unsung hero in the field of coral reef biology.