Hometown: Lawrenceville, GA
Undergraduate Education: B.S. Ecology,
University of Georgia, 2005
Work experience before MLML?
My study abroad experiences in New Zealand and Costa Rica as an undergrad lead to Teaching Assistant positions for field ecology programs in Costa Rica, through UGA. After I graduated from college, I went back to Costa Rica to live and work as a resident biologist at San Miguel Biological Station in Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve. There I helped to host various educational groups, from Tico elementary schools to graduate students from the US and Europe, helping them to learn about the plants, wildlife, and conservation issues of the forests, coasts, and sub-tidal environments of the pristine reserve, and taking part in many of their field research projects. I also conducted a large field research project of my own, studying the habitat associations and activity patterns of the 100-odd species of snails and slugs in the rocky intertidal zone.
Some questions for Heather:
Q: Why did you decide to pursue marine science?
A: I think it’s amazing how the basic concepts in our schoolbooks are either the work of thousands of scientists over hundreds of years, or they are very fresh discoveries thanks to modern technology, and I’ve always wanted to be a part of that process. For me, science is not about finding the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but rather to figure out—piece by piece, place by place, species by species—OUR role in this complex and dynamic world. I found a home in Marine Science because the ocean is where I find the most curious and surprising organisms and habitats, from the deep sea to the microscopic world. There are very few things on Earth that are not influenced or somehow linked to the oceans, so I’m thinking they must be pretty important!
Q: What experiences and opportunities have shaped your path to get you where you are now?
A: I was always the kid in the class who spent recess exploring the undersides of bushes or climbing trees to find new critters to wonder at, and I still love to dig in the dirt, climb trees, and beach-comb. Living in Florida suburbs, I enjoyed many trips to the beach, the swamps, to Sea World, and the Keys, so for me as a kid, “Marine Science” was all about swimming with Dolphins. I had some extremely inspirational teachers, and my interests blossomed in high school and college when I discovered that the most surprising and amazing plants and animals could be found in the most unexpected places, like the undersides of docks, in forest canopy bromeliad pools, or in tiny holes in rocks! By the time I finally realized my dream of swimming with dolphins at the age of 18, I was already more enchanted with the more rare and exotic, albeit smaller and less charismatic, plants and animals.
Q: What are you studying and why is it interesting and important to you?
A: My favorite animal group is the gastropods: snails, and slugs, that is. All life forms are fascinating for their unique adaptations and life histories, but gastropods are great creatures to study because they are so diverse. Just about any question you ask in any field of science—from geology to genetics, behavior to nutrition—can be applied to some kind of snail or slug (just ask me, if you don’t believe me!). My thesis project will look at the genetic diversity of the endangered white abalone in California, and some possible reasons that mere protection is not helping populations recover. It sounds simple, but because it is an endangered species, I can’t just go pluck a bunch of them from their homes. Instead, I will use museum specimens and historical data from commercial and recreational fisheries to answer questions about what abalone populations were like before they crashed, and what has changed since then.
Additionally, mollusk shells are fascinating because of their formation, composition, and functions. Abalone shells are the hardest “skeletons” of any animal, yet adult abalone shells are often infested with tiny holes created by drilling organisms like sponge and bacteria. If these critters can get past the snail’s #1 defense, could they pose a challenge to the survival and recovery of this species by making the animal more susceptible to disease, or making the shell more easily broken?
My project incorporates several fields of science as well as many different tools. It takes me into the field, museums, and the laboratory, and I get to learn about fisheries and conservation, genetics, disease, age and growth, and materials science.
Q: What are you hoping or planning to do when you finish?
A: I still have my whole master’s project ahead of me, but I hope to continue doing research and teaching through a PhD program either immediately after I finish or after gaining some career experience. It would be nice—ideal, in fact—to get paid to travel around the world, to write and do research on invertebrates and conservation, and teach a bit along the way. If you know of any openings for someone like me, give me a holler!!
Q: What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of graduate school?
A: Juggling classes, projects, work, and life all at once can be difficult sometimes, but I have learned a lot about time management and multi-tasking. It feels great to be able to share your knowledge of something with other students and faculty (everyone likes to feel smart sometimes), but the times I learn the most are the times when I wear my ignorance on my sleeve (often in bold lettering). Of course, the most challenging and rewarding part of graduate school is molding, forming, and growing a thesis project that you think is important and then getting it rolling and under control (and finally finishing it, I’m sure, although I’m not there yet!).
Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to get in to marine science?
A: 1. Get real-world experience! Traveling and working abroad was the best thing I have ever done for myself. Do volunteer work, an internship, or field/lab technician work to get an idea of the pace and quality of graduate work, whether it’s at your home campus or halfway around the world. Talk to your undergrad advisor and faculty about opportunities, or check out www.thesca.org, for tons of jobs and internships all over the world. I had always known that I loved science, but experience teaching and doing research on my own helped me figure out which parts of science I enjoyed and was good at.
2. Try new things! The universe becomes more interesting and more perplexing the more we learn about it. Help other students with their projects, take advantage of class projects, and explore your interests; all these things will help you gain perspective on your thesis and will expand your graduate experience.
3. Explore your resources and talk to people! Masters students should be sponge-like in their quest for knowledge, and you’ll find that personal conversations, seminars, and outreach programs often help steer your focus more than just reading journals and sitting in class. The people you meet in grad school come from such diverse backgrounds, and each has different things—information, experiences, and contacts—to share.
4. Stay Balanced! Grad school is a lot of work, so make sure you are ready to devote a LOT of your time to your academic work, but all work and no play means you’ll go insane. Keep some hobbies, and treat yourself when you need to. I think it’s important to make friends with other students, so when you hit rough times with your work, you can talk to people who have gone through similar problems.
Heather’s student page with the Invertebrate Ecology Lab: http://invert.mlml.calstate.edu/