Hometown: Woodstock, NY
Current Job Title: Research Assistant Professor
Work Location: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Job Description: Every day is very different. I am a research assistant professor at the University of the Virgin Islands where my research focuses on coral reef diseases, but I also teach and advise students in the biology and marine biology programs. Some of my days consist of what most people think of when they hear that I’m a “marine biologist” – I go out on a boat and SCUBA dive to collect data. These days are my favorite since I do most of my work on coral reefs in the Caribbean and a typical working day in the field means diving on beautiful reefs full of interesting organisms. I’m also a trained technical diver and so I can dive beyond recreational dive limits to reefs that lie between 100 and 200 feet. These reefs are some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen because they’ve been protected from some of the stressors that have damaged shallow reefs. Days when I’m not in the field I’m either teaching or in the office analyzing data, writing papers, applying for grants to fund my research, advising students or preparing lectures. These days are just as fun as field days, because I enjoy all parts of my job. There is always lots to do and it’s always exciting.
Company, Academic Institution, Government Agency or Non-profit affiliation: University of the Virgin Islands
Highest Degree Level Achieved: and Area of Study: Ph.D. in Marine Biology and Fisheries
What do you love most about your career?
That it’s constantly changing and there is always something new to discover – in the field, in my data, a new collaboration, a new student with fresh ideas, a new class to teach. Every day I’m learning new things about the organisms and systems that I study and from the people I work with and teach.
What inspired you to pursue a career in marine science or STEM related field?
I have been interested in the ocean and in science since I was kid, but after my freshman year in college I took a course about the geology and ecology of Caribbean coral reefs in the Cayman Islands. That week was full of “aha” moments for me. In particular I was fascinated by the fact that corals, which are tiny animals the size of a pencil eraser, are able to build whole reefs the size of islands. I've been hooked on coral reefs ever since.
Describe one of the most exciting moments you’ve experienced in your work.
I have been lucky to have had many exciting moments, but one of the most memorable was when I was helping to do reef fish surveys at randomly selected sites in the Dry Tortugas. Since the surveys were random, I never knew what I was going to see at any given site. One day my team was dropped on a site that had four adult Goliath groupers. Goliath groupers are the largest grouper in the Western Atlantic and can get up to 8 ft in length and weigh up to 800 lbs. The four we saw were each 5-6 feet long and they were not particularly happy to have us there. When these fish are irritated they make a booming noise using their swim bladder and it sends a sort of sonic shockwave through you. When we first arrived on the site, the grouper were swimming all around and boom-booming at us. They finally settled down and let us admire them. It was very difficult to take data at that site and not just stare at those incredible creatures.
Describe the biggest challenge(s) that you’ve faced and how did you overcome it.
My biggest challenge has been overcoming my own self-doubt. In science, you get criticized a lot – which is how it is supposed to be – science is about looking at things critically, testing hypotheses and trying to break them down to see which ones stand up to the test. It’s not supposed to be personal criticism, but sometimes it plants seeds of doubt. I find that I have to give myself pep talks and remind myself that I have worked hard, my work is good and that I belong in my field. I often turn to my family and friends for emotional support if I’m feeling low.
Who is your most influential mentor and how did they help you get to where you are today?
Dr. Carrie Manfrino was the professor of the Cayman class where my first spark of interest in coral reefs came from. She later offered me an opportunity to intern with her and that led to many years of working with her to develop programs for the organization she began in the Cayman Islands, the Central Caribbean Marine Institute. She trusted me and at a young stage in my career gave me the rare opportunity to design projects, both research and educational, implement them and then help them grow into successful programs that continue today.
How do you feel you are making a positive difference in the world?
I believe that both my research and teaching are having positive impacts in the world. My research on coral reef diseases is important because it is helping to identify what is causing the decline we are seeing in Caribbean coral reefs. Through my teaching I am helping to train a new, more diverse generation of marine scientists and natural resource managers.