Martin Lorilla, who was raised in Manila, recalls vacationing as a child at a beach of the South China Sea.

“I remember asking my father why the coral I saw on television was so colorful, but why the coral I saw at the beach was so dark and brown.

“He said, ‘Because the coral is dead.'”

Lorilla’s Dad explained that sometimes in the Philippines, coral dies because of algae growth, pollution, or because fishermen throw sticks of dynamite into the water killing the fish, making them easier to catch, but also shattering the coral.

Lorilla says: “I remember asking, ‘Why don’t people stop? And is anyone doing anything about it?'”

Apparently, few people were, until an MIT Ph.D. student rounded up Lorilla and two others to head to the Philippines to launch First Step Coral. A while back, with fellowships from MIT’s Public Service Center, Lorilla set out to save the coral, along with Ph.D. student Gerardo Jose la O’, Illac Diaz, an urban studies and planning fellow, and undergraduate Emzo de los Santos.

La O’ knew of an MIT alumnus, Thomas J. Goreau, who had invented a way to help restore the coral reefs with an invention called Biorock. Lorilla says that coral that is attached to Biorock grows three to five times faster than native coral and has a longer survival rate. The MIT students’ addition to the process was a way to power Biorock with solar panels, tidal power, and wind turbines.

While in the Philippines, in addition to saving the coral, Lorilla and the team also set out to educate 500 schoolchildren about the dangers of dynamite fishing and the benefits of coral restoration. They visited local schools and aquariums, holding information sessions to educate the children.

“I’ve always wanted to give back to my country, even when I was a kid,” Lorilla says. “The funding that I have gotten at MIT has enabled me to help the Philippines, and it feels amazingly great.”

Lorilla, who is an Abdul Latif Jameel-Toyota Scholar, says: “This scholarship is everything to me. It’s my education. And it’s an immense opportunity.

“It has changed me. It opened my eyes to the opportunities that are available. It also made me realize that when you’re given an opportunity, how important it is to give back.

“I am so grateful. I have been given the power to help people. I definitely feel I have a responsibility to the people who gave me the money to do something worthwhile. Thanking them is not enough.”