Brighid Welchans used her love for the sea to help make a real change by designing an interactive website to promote education about coral reefs.
Welchans’ Coral Reef Day website debuted on June 1. It features coral reef experts from Australia and from Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium answering previously submitted questions, interactive simulations to visualize reef responses to environmental fluctuations, tips on writing an exceptional Gilman Scholarship essay and much more.
“Coral reefs are irreplaceable aspects of our oceans. They create habitat for a notable percentage of marine life, shelter coastal communities from tropical storms, and spur the global economy,” said Welchans. “It is our duty to protect and conserve coral reefs, and my hope is that Coral Reef Day inspires people to care about coral conservation.”
Welchans has harbored a love for the sea and all its creatures since she was six years old. Throughout her childhood, she cultivated this passion through books, documentaries and essays as she grew.
During her senior year of high school, she chose to focus an independent research paper on the factors causing coral reef endangerment – and what their loss would mean for the future of the world. After graduating from high school, she worked as an intern at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, where she learned more about how coral ecosystems work, and what is required for them to thrive.
Welchans, who majored in environmental studies and graduated in May from the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and the University Honors Program, dreamed of taking college courses on marine conservation throughout her first few years at the university. However, she repeatedly dismissed the notion; to truly immerse herself in marine conservation coursework in the way she wanted would require opportunities to study coral reefs first hand – out of the question in landlocked Nebraska – and studying abroad for a semester did not seem financially feasible.
Despite her doubts, Welchans remained determined. Through online research, she found a university in Australia, James Cook University, that seemed like the perfect fit for her goals. Next came the problem of financing her study. Fortunately, Welchans found and applied for the competitive Gilman Scholarship. With the news that she’d been awarded a Gilman Scholarship, doors started to open.
Suddenly, she had the resources to travel halfway around the world to begin gaining experience in her future career field.
“With this scholarship I was able to learn marine science from world-renowned professors and dive the Great Barrier Reef to see first-hand what I was learning in class. During my time at James Cook University, I became further convinced that I was on the right path.”
After returning home, Welchans began to build on a project proposal that she had included in her application for the Gilman Scholarship, which requires recipients to create and complete a follow-on service project. While these projects can take many forms, Welchans knew she wanted to find a creative outlet to educate others.
“I wanted to bring back the knowledge I learned about coral reefs, as well as promote the impact studying abroad had on my life.”
These ideas culminated in Coral Reef Day, an event Welchans planned to coordinate on campus in conjunction with World Reef Awareness Day, celebrated annually on June 1. Originally, she planned to present information on coral reefs and the Gilman Scholarship to University of Nebraska-Lincoln students and community members over the course of several hours. Her plans included demonstrations, discussions with coral experts, a booth on the Gilman Scholarship and more activities aimed at educating the public.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Welchans had to adapt her plans, but she remained nimble as she made modifications. Instead of an in-person event, she transitioned Coral Reef Day to an interactive website. While she kept the main pillars of her original plan, she was able to expand her plans in previously unplanned ways.
“One of the greatest benefits thus far of a virtual Coral Reef Day has been the ability to include students and life-long learners across the country, instead of solely at UNL.”
Visit Welchans’ interactive website to learn more about Coral Reef Day, learn from experts, find additional resources and more.
“Each person can make a difference in coral conservation, even from the middle of Nebraska. The first step to enacting real change is education,” Welchans said.