Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Sykesville, Maryland but feel like my second home is in Emerald Isle, North Carolina.
Where did you go to school and in what subject did you get your degree(s)?
I attended the University of South Carolina in Columbia, for both my Bachelor’s and Accelerated Master’s degrees in Marine Science, with an emphasis in biological oceanography. Since Maryland did not have a Marine Science program at any university, I received in-state tuition through the Academic Common Market. I highly recommend looking into this cost-saving program if your state does not offer your intended major.
How did you come to work at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center?
I started working at the center as an Ernest F. Hollings Scholar in the summer of 2016. During my internship, I studied growth patterns and maturation age of hawksbill sea turtles in Beaufort, North Carolina (check out the publication here). I used skeletochronology (bone dating or ageing). This process uses the chronological lines of arrested growth (or slow growth) to estimate age, size, age at maturation, and growth rates. Once I finished my Accelerated Master’s degree in 2018, I was fortunate enough to be hired as a biologist for the science center.
What are some projects you have worked on before your current position?
While at the science center, I worked in the Protected Resources Branch on the Sea Turtle Team until the end of 2019. I continued sea turtle ageing for the center and assisted with in-water field work studying bycatch reduction, migration patterns, and habitat usage. After Hurricane Florence, the turtle team’s main sample storage freezer failed. I was the “lucky” person who got to clean out the freezer to remove the humerus bones from flippers of dead, stranded sea turtles. As stinky as this endeavor was, the amount of data collected after the bones were processed and aged was rewarding enough. I was recognized as NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center 2019 Team Member of the Year!
In 2020, I joined the center’s Biology and Life History group. In this position, I have learned how to process and age a variety of marine fish species such as red porgy, gray snapper, scamp, vermilion snapper, and white grunt. I have also contributed length-at-age data to the Gulf of Mexico Gray Snapper assessment, SEDAR75.
What do you do at the science center?
I am a NOAA affiliate for the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies. I work in the Biology and Life History Branch within the Fisheries Assessment, Technology, and Engineering Support Division. We receive thousands of structures to age every year, mostly consisting of otoliths (inner ear bones of fish) and spines (external bony structure, mostly used for gray triggerfish). We section these structures to age—by counting rings like a tree—under a microscope. We follow the SouthEast Data, Assessment, and Review guidelines and procedures for stock assessments/data submissions. We supply species specific length-at-age data along with other contributing organizations to collectively assess a certain population and/or species. From there, management suggestions are provided to the stock managers and legislators to govern the stock accordingly.
We have been working on a new application of infrared spectroscopy called Fourier Transform Near Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-NIRS). FT-NIRS spectroscopy can predictively age otoliths faster, more efficiently, and as accurately as traditional ageing. I have been using this advanced technology to predictively age white grunt otoliths from two genetically distinct stocks from the Carolinas and Florida. I am currently building two different models that have the spectral signatures of known age otoliths. The models can predict the age of an unknown age otolith by comparison to the known age spectra. We are hoping to implement this type of technology into a stock assessment in the future in order to drastically decrease processing time, cost, and effort. There is still more research that needs to be done, but we are getting closer to our goals!
What do you like most about your position?
Working at NOAA has been a lifelong dream. My favorite part of being at the center is the opportunity for field work and getting out of my comfort zone. This includes everything from wading along pound nets to apply LED light deterrents for sea turtle bycatch studies, to dissecting out otoliths and gonads for age and fecundity work on Southeast Fishery Independent Surveys. Every experience has been enlightening and momentous for crystallizing my research interests. Another reason I love working at the center is forging connections with passionate, fascinating, and intelligent scientists. Meeting individuals that are knowledgeable, productive, and inspiring has been the highlight of my time here. I have made lifelong collaborators, mentors, mentees, and friends. Many scientists that I have worked with are multitasking many different crucial duties at once while also accomplishing fascinating science. This has continued to be inspiring!
What advice would you have for someone interested in a career at NOAA Fisheries?
Put yourself out there: volunteer, email, attend webinars, intern, network, anything that gets your name into the field that you’re passionate about. Reach out to any professional you find fascinating to learn about their education, career, current work, etc. You won’t know what your dream career is like until you’ve met someone in it or related to it. Finding out the nitty-gritty details of a career is important to be able to shape what you want to do. You shouldn’t get discouraged from a lack of response or receiving the word “no”. It will happen often if you send lots of emails out, but the opportunity to get a ”gold nugget” of helpful information for your career is worthwhile. Networking has opened so many doors for me to volunteer, apply for jobs, seek advice, form connections with other people, etc. Another piece of advice to “infiltrate” NOAA is to apply for any fellowship or scholarship that you are eligible for. I started at NOAA Fisheries as a student intern, kept volunteering for sea turtle fieldwork, then was hired on because I kept in contact with my previous supervisor. Stay persistent in your career pursuit!
Is there a book, quote, or person that influenced you to be the person that you are today? Tell us why.
This may sound very cliche, but I truly wanted to be the female Crocodile Hunter. Steve Irwin was a huge role model for me growing up. Although I do not study crocodiles, sea turtles and fish can be somewhat dangerous themselves! I had Steve’s books, merchandise, DVDs, movie (yes, the Crocodile Hunter movie, I totally recommend it), and board game! His infectious passion for, and enthrallment with, wildlife has inspired me to become a marine scientist and appreciate the diversity of the animal kingdom. I remember trying to identify and spot native critters in parks and along beaches to be like Steve. I hope that I can help carry on his legacy of passion for wildlife conservation and research throughout my career.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I am an avid gardener, am attempting to be a DIY-er, and an animal lover. I frequently take my dog, Dexter, on walks and to the beach (although he doesn’t like the water, yet). I love to travel and experience different cultures and traditions. My most recent favorite trip was with my partner to Seattle, Washington where we got to hike up the iconic waterfall from the show Twin Peaks, Snoqualmie Falls. You’ll frequently find me in Beaufort, North Carolina at a local brewery or walking along the waterfront.