I’ve always considered myself a dreamer. Growing up was hard for me, because I was continuously dissatisfied by the world around me. For a long time my life has been cyclic. I put in work, got a little bit out of it, then I’d get bored and move on. Career wise, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I did have dreams. I had dreams of magic and wonder. My dreams were of a totally different world. A world ruled by magic and science. A world not ruled by massive egos ripping it apart piece by piece. Mind you, this world was all in my head. That is, it was until 2003. I was 13 year old then. The movie Finding Nemo had just come out in theaters, and I, like many others flocked to the silver screen. It wasn’t that the story itself resonated with me, though. I’d enjoyed it, but that wasn’t really my takeaway. No, what I embraced was the concept of another world existing right beside my own. One vastly unexplored, and seemingly resilient to the egos of the world I knew. I became infatuated with it. Those feelings remain with me today, and followed me wherever I’ve gone.
Those feelings led me to apply for the NOAA-NGI Diversity Internship Program in January, 2016. I’d been attending college at the University of Louisiana, Monroe since the fall semester of 2012, and by this time I was starting to feel worn and beat down. My dreams of experiencing the other world firsthand were evaporating just as fast as my confidence that I could escape the chains of the egotistical world. I needed a win. I needed a change of pace that would remind me that I wasn’t wrong to dream. When I received the call from Dr. Katie McHugh one afternoon a couple months later, I was frightened to even hope. She had been the only potential mentor in the NOAA-NGI program to reach out to me, but as she described the research that the SDRP conducted with bottlenose dolphins I quickly realized I no longer wanted to hear from the other mentors. This was my big chance to reconnect with the other world, if only for three months. I told her the truth – that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else that summer.
Now, as I type this, it is the fall of 2016, and I’ve found after working with the SDRP as an intern that I’ve come back with much more than confidence. Working alongside the staff and other interns at the SDRP taught me skills and life lessons as well. The project I’d been working on primarily was the digitization and organization of a Mobile Bay, Alabama dorsal fin identification catalog from the 1980’s. The goal was to get these data into a usable form for later use. Dolphins can live for more than 60 years. So, it’s probable that the pictures in the catalog could reveal information on unidentified stranded dolphins or living ones whose whereabouts at that time are unknown.
I learned not only skills with spreadsheets, but more importantly I learned about the need for organization and responsibility to diligently do my job. Some were worried I’d get bored with the desk work, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was in Sarasota, Florida living right off the beach! My blue world was right beside me every day. I could go out and see it whenever I chose to; and I did as often as I could. Don’t think, though, that this was the only work I did. As an intern I had many opportunities to go out on the research boats Martha Jane, Bob, and Fregata, and do dolphin surveys. I consider them to be the bread and butter of the entire program. So, I took them seriously. Spending most of the day out on the water like that finally gave me what I wanted. I had unrestricted access with my vast, blue, world. I got to experience the sunny days with gentle breezes, the cloudy days with scattered storms, the hot days forsaken by the wind, and the exciting days with unexpected events. We happened upon injured sea turtles twice while out on dolphin prey fish surveys, and also had a very interesting fiasco with two wasp nests and a tackle box (You should ask Sunnie and Elizabeth about it one day). A skill that I’m really glad to have picked up while I was out there was learning to drive powerboats. So, I want to thank Aaron Barleycorn and Katie for risking their lives and letting me practice.
I truly felt free while I was working with the SDRP. I felt like I’d finally found a way to leave the boring world behind for a much better one. Now, back in Monroe, Louisiana I feel refocused. I’ve got my confidence back. I don’t know if I’ll ever end up in Sarasota, Florida again, but wherever I do go it’ll be connected to the same mysterious and vast world I found there. Thanks so much Katie McHugh, Aaron Barleycorn, Jason Allen, Sunnie Brenneman, Kim Bassos-Hull, Shauna McBride, Elizabeth Berens McCabe, and Randall Wells for giving me the perspective I’ve been looking for.
This article appeared on page 33 of the 2017 SDRP Annual Report, Nicks n Notches.