Baylor professor dedicates her efforts in reef conservation

Dr. Rena Bonem

By Heather Trotter | Lariat Reporter

Dr. Rena Bonem’s love for coral reefs began with a passion for geology in high school. She was initially interested in paleontology, the study of fossilized animals and plants, but later became interested in studying coral reefs. Today, she is one of the most influential women in coral reef ecology, working with NOAA, the YMCA, PADI, the Geological Society of America and many more science-based organizations where she has held high-ranking positions. She is currently a professor of geology at Baylor University.

In March of 2001, Bonem was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame. She received her letter of nomination to be inducted because of the scientific research she conducted while scuba diving in coral reefs.

She first became interested in scuba diving while taking a summer course studying coral reefs in the Florida Keys. She was required to learn how to snorkel so that she could study the reefs up close, but after the summer she was hooked and wanted to learn how to scuba dive.

“I quit counting but at one point I had about 5,000 dives,” said Bonem.

It has been about three years since Bonem’s last dive, and she said if it hadn’t been for her knee replacement she would still be diving. She added that she will probably dive again once her knee is fully healed.

After taking up scuba diving, Bonem became a scuba instructor for the YMCA and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), in 1975. A chairman of the YMCA scuba program met with Bonem and asked her to put together a program to help diving instructors effectively teach their students to care for and preserve coral reefs. It was the first national coral reef ecology program for scuba divers, which was eventually adopted by other diving programs.

She was later asked to create a textbook to pair with the program she created. She traveled around the world to dive through coral reefs in order to conduct research for the textbook, titled “Palaces Under the Sea.”

Along with her love for diving and research, Bonem is also passionate about preserving and protecting coral reefs.

“One person predicted there would be no living reefs by the year 2000, and I like to think that we were able to push that back,” she said.

Bonem has gathered data on coral reefs for 35 years, specifically Jamaican reefs, and is part of NOAA’s coral reef list, which shares information regarding coral reef health and monitoring. She has published multiple articles and essays regarding her research on coral reefs as well.

When she retires, she plans to send all of her research to the marine lab at Discovery Bay in Jamaica.

Bonem is currently studying a dinosaur trackway in Gatesville, alongside her geology students, and is still very active in the scientific community. In her free time, she enjoys training dogs for agility trials.

Even though she holds many accomplishments and honors, Bonem is an extremely humble woman.

“Probably the greatest contributions I’ve had have been the students who have gone on,” she said when asked about the impact she’s made on the world.

Her former students and fellow colleagues have nothing but the best to say in regards to Bonem.

“From her education work here to her education work in the world of scuba for 50 years, to her incredible generous spirit, to her rescue work for dachshund animals, she has committed herself to excellence and to people literally her entire life,” said Hugh Riley, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology and neuroscience.

“I think that very few people are as passionate about their work as she is and as involved in the community as she is, and that extends beyond Baylor University. She’s just absolutely wonderful and she just does so much that she really is a hidden gem at Baylor,” said Bruce Byars, director of the Center for Spatial Research.