Dedicated faculty drive Island University's research development

The evolution of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi as a research institution is a step-by-step process of setting optimistic goals and obtaining consensus and support from an array of stakeholders. One of the most critical elements is attracting dedicated, innovative, and inspired faculty members to help bring the process to life. But what is it that inspires a person to pursue a profession in research, and how does the Island University help cultivate an environment that supports meaningful research opportunities?

Dr. Chris Bird has become well-known in the Coastal Bend due to his work with the COVID-19 task force, made up of City of Corpus Christi, Nueces County, and university representatives. Bird’s role was recognized late last year when the associate professor was selected by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times as Newsmaker of the Year.

But while Bird has been willing to step to the plate to help the community with his knowledge and experience, the population geneticist and marine biologist is far more comfortable searching a shoreline for marine mollusks than standing in front of a camera for one of his many media interviews regarding the pandemic.

“I’m keenly interested in the effects of overharvesting on marine populations and promoting the sustainable extraction of marine resources,” Bird said. “I was an avid fisherman until I went to college and I spent a lot of time in my childhood clamming and crabbing in Connecticut. There was a noticeable decline in the marine resources, and that interested me.”

After a semester of chemical engineering at Georgia Tech, Bird realized that it wasn’t for him.

“I reapplied to universities with more investment in ecology programs and never looked back,” Bird said.

That interest in marine environments is shared by Assistant Professor of Marine Biology Dara Orbach, who feels working and living by the ocean is essential to her happiness.

A Toronto native, she was eager to leave harsh winters behind. She did her undergraduate work on Canada’s west coast—Vancouver.

“I fell in love with living by the coast and the idea that people bike to work in their business suits and go for picnics and have just a happier way of life,” Orbach said. “So, I decided that I wanted a lifestyle by the coast where it just brought out the best in me and I was in my zen zone."

Her path to the study of marine mammals had a less direct route. She earned two degrees as an undergraduate: animal biology and classic, near eastern and religious studies. She then set her sights on a research-focused profession. She first studied echo-location in bats as a way to develop expertise that could eventually open doors to marine mammal research. 


While working on her Ph.D. in Galveston, she was introduced to the Texas Gulf Coast. Finding a job at Texas A&M Corpus Christi was when everything aligned: a welcoming university community, a HispanicServing Institution, and “dolphins, right here in the bay.”

For Assistant Professor of Geophysics Mohamed Ahmed, growing up in arid Egypt was accompanied by the understanding that water was a precious resource. Attempts to locate and monitor underground freshwater are never easy, complicated by incomplete data, delays, and discontinuity. 

“Additionally, these observations are sparse and do not adequately represent the entire hydrogeologic system under investigation,” Ahmedsaid. “This inspired me to integrate geophysics, remote sensing, numerical modeling, and GIS data and approaches to investigate a wide range of complex hydrological, geological, and environmental problems in arid and semi-arid environments."

From inspiration to application, scientists across the university are developing research specializations that bring Texas A&M-Corpus Christi new prominence as a research institution, and create new opportunities for students.

“TAMU-CC directly and indirectly provided me with the necessary resources to establish the first modern genomics research lab on the island,” Bird said. “This involved acquiring the laboratory instruments, expertise, and computational resources. The Research Office and College of Science and Engineering were instrumental in facilitating the establishment of the Genomics Core Laboratory, which provides services to researchers worldwide. They were active in acquiring a supercomputer necessary to process genomic data, which is also useful in several other disciplines such as geospatial computing sciences and atmospheric sciences.”

Orbach is getting support for the development of her lab—the Functional Anatomy and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals lab—which initially will focus on the study of local dolphin populations. Researchers will travel by boat and use unmanned aerial vehicles to help identify these dolphins by markings on their dorsal fins. No substantial study of area dolphins has been done for 30 years, and Orbach’s particular interest in the mating behavior of marine mammals is a research focus for her group that will fill critical gaps in our knowledge of  cetacean reproduction.

Ahmed sees the Island University as a place with a tradition of crossdisciplinary collaborations. 

“TAMU-CC is second to none in investigating research challenges with a team-based approach, bringing together a vast array of world-class expertise and facilities,” he said. 

Ahmed said TAMU-CC provides ideal circumstances to collaborate with top scientists from geology, physics, chemistry, atmospheric science, and coastal sciences disciplines. 

“This environment exposes me to new disciplines and ideas,” Ahmed said. “TAMU-CC provides real opportunities to integrate the classroom, research labs, and field experiences, something that is not available in many other  nstitutions. This type of integration definitely enhances students’ engagement, performance, and employment prospects."

Ahmed is pleased to see the university’s focus on research continue to develop.

“I’m very proud to be a member of TAMU-CC,” Ahmed said. “I see the huge efforts made by TAMU-CC to grow as a research university. I totally support that. I’m also very thankful for the entire Division of Research and Innovation for the continued support that they provide to all in the TAMU-CC community.”

Bird agrees in the importance of growing research at A&M-Corpus Christi.

“More research earns more funding and support for the university,” he said. “This, in turn, attracts more students and provides an improved diversity of opportunities to those students. TAMU-CC graduates are well prepared and competitive in today’s workforce. If research grows enough, a critical mass can be achieved where some of those graduates will start building new businesses and industries here rather than leaving. That’s good for the whole community.”