Northeastern graduate who studies rare Maya hamlet fish named Knight-Hennessy Scholar

Ben Moran stands on the rocky shore at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Ben Moran traveled to Belize in May of 2017 to find and collect DNA samples from the Maya hamlet, a species of fish that lives off the coast of the Central American country.

But there was a problem: The fish weren’t there.

Moran, at the time, was an undergraduate student at Northeastern and working at an oceanic research center in Germany for a global co-op. He and his research colleagues spent nine days searching near coral reefs for the electric blue and iridescent fish. What the researchers found, however, were dying coral reefs. No Maya hamlets.

“We were basically out of hope,” says Moran, who graduated from Northeastern last year with a degree in marine biology. “We had no idea where to look.”

Then, the researchers caught a break. They got a tip that bright blue fish were spotted about 25 miles south, where a nonprofit organization had restored coral reefs. Moran and his research colleagues arrived at the site on the final day of their visit to Belize, and, sure enough, they found scores of Maya hamlets. They ultimately collected enough DNA samples to study. They’ve written a research paper, which is yet to be published, on the fish’s population, history, and health.  

Ben Moran prepares diving gear at the Marine Science Center. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Moran says that his work in Belize began as a marine research project, but it quickly evolved into a marine conservation effort. His research revealed that the fish’s population has significantly declined in recent years. He says that he plans to petition the International Union for Conservation of Nature to declare the fish as “endangered.”

Moran will continue studying the genomics of animals, and focusing on marine conservation, as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar. The Knight-Hennessy program provides students from around the world with full-tuition scholarships to pursue graduate degrees at Stanford University. Moran, who is one of 69 Knight-Hennessy Scholars selected this year, plans to earn his doctorate in biology at Stanford.

Moran says that working in Belize, and having to pivot when a research project took an unexpected turn, helped him mature as a researcher.

“When we got there, we realized that the work was not going according to plan and that we kind of had a responsibility to try to make this situation better,” Moran says. “I’m looking forward to keeping more of that mindset as I go through my research career.”

Moran says that he significantly expanded his knowledge of marine science and evolutionary genetics while studying at Northeastern, particularly through the university’s Three Seas Program. Students who participate in the yearlong program study and conduct fieldwork at sites in Massachusetts, Washington state, and Panama.

Moran is currently working as a teaching assistant for the Three Seas Program in Panama, where, as a student, he met a professor named Oscar Puebla, who works at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany. Moran arranged to work with Puebla at the center for his third global co-op at Northeastern, and that co-op led to his research on Maya hamlets.

“It’s kind of come full circle, in a way,” Moran says.

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