I suppose that I’m not the typical marine biologist because I did not grow up dreaming of working with marine animals, much less marine mammals.
In fact, in middle school I planned on a pre-med and theater double-major in college, which I suppose would have meant practicing medicine during the week and community theater on the weekends.
Thankfully for theater audiences across Virginia and elsewhere, my career pursuits took a dramatic turn when I took a marine mammals course at the Duke Marine Laboratory during the summer between my Junior and Senior years at the College of William and Mary. I loved everything about the course and wanted to learn more.
Several of the instructors (Andy Read, Kim Urian, Doug Nowacek, Damon Gannon, Danielle Waples) hailed from the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program and strongly encouraged me to pursue an internship if I was ‘truly serious about wanting to work with marine mammals.’ So, I applied for the internship with Randy and made my way down to Sarasota the day after college graduation. My friends, many of whom were business majors and moving to large cities were confused by my post-graduate career choice as they were being offered signing bonuses and on their way to becoming a departmental VP, while I was heading to a smaller town in Florida to spend the summer ‘volunteering on a boat.’
That opportunity to ‘volunteer on a boat’ for the SDRP during the summer of 2000 turned out to be the best decision of my career. I say this because the SDRP internship was, without a doubt, a springboard that propelled me towards future graduate and professional opportunities.
My internship during the summer of 2000 focused primarily on the graduate work of Caryn Owen, who was examining maternal investment strategies of adult female dolphins and their new babies (YOYs). The brand new and shiny R/V Nai’a was our home away from home that summer and the platform for two other acoustic projects for which Dr. Katie McHugh was also an intern.
That summer we all experienced the rigors of field work (i.e., long days in the hot Florida sun), but also the satisfaction of contributing to research that was aiming to understand reasons for poor survival of first-born calves and anthropogenic threats to Sarasota Bay dolphins. In the summer of 2000, I learned how to drive a boat, participated in my first health assessment, enhanced my dolphin-spotting abilities, learned how to conduct focal animal behavioral follows, and developed lab skills for post-field data processing. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the skills that I developed during my SDRP internship became critical to my graduate school pursuits, and eventually integrated into my normal career routine today.
After leaving Mote and the SDRP internship, I travelled around North and South Carolina and the east coast of Florida targeting short-term environmental jobs and another marine mammal summer internship until I started a Master’s program (in Environmental Studies) at the College of Charleston (SC). My thesis research used stranding data to quantify the level of interaction between bottlenose dolphins and the blue crab fishery in South Carolina under the advisement of Wayne McFee and in collaboration with Eric Zolman and Todd Speakman (two more people closely affiliated with SDRP). Although the SDRP internship was not directly related to my Master’s research, Randy’s conservation message that underlies all of the research conducted by SDRP was a prominent theme throughout my thesis. Following the completion of my Master’s education, I was hired as a contractor for NOAA to assist with marine mammal necropsies and stranding response, a 4.5-year opportunity that strengthened my understanding of marine mammal biology and physiology and piqued my interests in bottlenose dolphin health and disease.
In August of 2007, I left my strandings position with NOAA to pursue a Ph.D. in epidemiology at the Medical University of South Carolina (Charleston). Since leaving Sarasota in 2000, I maintained contact with a few interns and staff, and met new staff members over the years during NOAA-related research projects, but the real reunion with the SDRP lab and Randy occurred when I began my Ph.D. Thankfully, Randy agreed to serve a major role on my committee (along with my primary advisor, Dr. Lori Schwacke – another person affiliated with SDRP!) and contribute over 2/3 of the data to my project that examined the prevalence, persistence, and factors contributing to skin lesions and skin disease (particularly lacaziosis) in wild bottlenose dolphins.
I spent the next four years searching for lesions in thousands of photographs of Sarasota Bay dolphins, participating in Sarasota Bay dolphin health assessments to collect skin lesion samples, and modeling environmental and biological factors associated with skin lesion occurrence. Once again, the skills necessary for my long-term career as a wildlife epidemiologist were rooted in Sarasota.
I am now working as a contractor again for NOAA in Dr. Schwacke’s Sentinel Species Program at the Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, SC. Our program uses studies of bottlenose dolphin health to identify ecosystem and human health risks in southeastern coastal estuaries. Our research group routinely collaborates with the SDRP for remote biopsy and capture-release health assessment projects, as well as studies that take advantage of Randy’s long-term data set to define quantitative measures of health. Twenty-five years ago I would have never imagined myself as a marine mammal scientist, especially an epidemiologist. Twelve years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that I would still be driving a boat during field projects, participating in dolphin health assessments, or using any of the other skills I learned during the summer of 2000. I love what I do and consider myself extremely fortunate for the many opportunities that I have had over the past 12 years, many of which I am certain are attributable to my experience as a SDRP intern.
This article was published on page 42 in the January 2013 Nicks n Notches.
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