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Meet Mitchell Rider, Postdoctoral Research Associate

June 10, 2024

As part of the Faces of the Southeast Fisheries Science Center series, meet Dr. Mitchell Rider.

A young man squats next to a large dog on a trail. Dr. Mitch Rider on a hike with his German shorthaired pointer pal, Louis. Photo courtesy of Mitch Rider

Where did you grow up? 

I grew up along the Front Range of Colorado in Boulder. Even though I was landlocked and far from any major body of water, I still grew up with a fascination for marine wildlife. This mainly stemmed from going on hunting and fishing trips with my family. Both of those hobbies not only gave me an appreciation for nature and conservation, but also sparked my interest in studying animal movement and behavior. 

Where did you go to school and in what subject did you get your degree(s)?

Two men wearing camouflage outfits stand on wide open, grassy, mountainous terrain looking into the distance.
Mitch with his dad at their family ranch in Colorado bow hunting. Photo courtesy of Mitch Rider

I traveled to Maine and got my undergraduate degree in biology and math with a focus in marine ecology at Bates College. I was able to take a lot of marine science courses that had labs and field work focused on the ecology of the rocky intertidal zone. During my junior year, I studied abroad through the School for Field Studies in Turks and Caicos where I got more in-depth experience with field work and participated in research projects. During the summer after my junior year, I participated in a NOAA internship program that placed me in the Early Life History Laboratory at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center. There, I studied the relationship between bluefin and yellowfin tuna and physical oceanographic features called Lagrangian coherent structures. That project ultimately turned into my senior thesis. After undergrad, I attended the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science at the University of Miami for both my master’s and doctorate degrees. During my master’s research, I explored the relationship between recreational boat activity and shark space use in Biscayne Bay, Florida, using acoustic telemetry and passive acoustic monitoring. I took a turn from sharks to turtles during my quest for my Ph.D. when I teamed up with Dr. Chris Sasso to study the movement ecology of leatherback sea turtles along the Atlantic coast of the United States.

How did you come to work at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center?

Ever since I was in undergrad, I have always had some sort of association with the science center. After my undergraduate internship with the Early Life History Lab, the researchers hired me on as a short-term lab technician while I was pursuing my master’s degree. At the same time, I was maintaining an array of acoustic telemetry receivers in Biscayne Bay in collaboration with Dr. Joan Browder’s Lab at the center as part of the Biscayne Bay Habitat Focus Area project. Maintaining that acoustic receiver array led me to meet Dr. Chris Sasso and I began working with him to study the association between boat traffic and sea turtle movement using the same array of receivers. While working with Chris, he had funding to study the movement ecology of leatherbacks along the U.S. East Coast, which ultimately turned into my Ph.D. research. 

A few years down the road while I was finishing up graduate school, I learned through Chris that there was a postdoctoral research position with the Sea Turtle Branch conducting research that dovetailed nicely with my research toward my doctoral degree. I applied as I was finishing up my dissertation and was very fortunate to be offered the position! As you can see, I have had quite the history with the center in the last 5 years. All the experience and relationships I made during that time ended up being instrumental in where I am now and I couldn’t be happier!

What do you do at the science center?

5 men on a boat at sea with small strip of land visible at the horizon.
Mitch with the field team searching for leatherbacks in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Heather Haas

I’m a Postdoctoral Research Associate studying several aspects of sea turtle movement ecology. My research involves developing species distribution models for several sea turtle species in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic using both telemetry and bycatch data. These models will then be used to analyze any overlap with human-driven threats such as fisheries and vessel traffic, which should inform management strategies to help further protect these populations. 

What do you like most about your position?

I’ve always been fascinated by the extensive migrations these animals embark on, so I find myself extremely lucky that every day I get to observe the incredible migrations our tagged turtles are partaking in. Even more, I love being able to investigate different aspects of their movement patterns and behavior and try to understand where, when, and why they are moving the way they do. 

What advice would you have for someone interested in a career at NOAA Fisheries?

Other than seeking out opportunities to network with people who work at NOAA Fisheries, I would also highly suggest learning and understanding NOAA Fisheries’ mission, including their research and management goals when it comes to protecting certain species. Coming out of my Ph.D., I was highly focused on one aspect of a particular population in a specific area. However, working at NOAA has made it possible for me to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Now I ask questions like, “How do we best use our knowledge and resources to inform effective management strategies for multiple populations across several regions?” I think learning to have that mindset would set someone up for success when pursuing a career here. 

What advice would you give to students or young people interested in being a sea turtle biologist?

As boring as it might sound, take plenty of math and writing classes! Once you build a solid foundation in statistics and scientific writing, you can apply those skills to many disciplines within the broad scope of marine biology and ecology. That way, you can keep an open mind about what you pursue in the field, which will result in getting a diverse range of skills and expertise. You can rely on those diverse skills when looking for jobs in the field. When I started graduate school, I was convinced that I would dedicate my life to studying sharks. But, after being exposed to the field of movement ecology, I now have a rich passion for animal movement in general and would love to apply my newfound knowledge to any species in any location!

What is the biggest threat or concern for U.S. sea turtle populations right now? What can everyone do to help protect them?

Four people examine a large grey leatherback sea turtle on the deck of a boat.
The field team, Mitch Rider, Chris Sasso, Samir Patel, and Emily Christiansen with a leatherback turtle off Nantucket, Massachusetts. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Heather Haas (Permit #21233)

While bycatch in fisheries is an immediate threat for U.S. sea turtles, I think the biggest threat right now is climate change. The main concern is how little we know about how it will impact sea turtles beyond their nesting beaches. Over the past few decades, research has shown that climate change affects all aspects of the sea turtle life cycle, from altered hatchling sex-ratios to reductions in foraging areas. I believe we should strive to understand as much about the biology and ecology of these species as we can to help reduce the impacts of climate change now and well into the future. 

Why is protecting and conserving sea turtles—the goal of this research—important?

Other than turtles being a group of animals that everyone adores, protecting sea turtles is essential to ensuring a healthy ecosystem. When we think about an ecosystem as a whole, we have to understand that every part has a role and is connected to the other in at least one way. If sea turtle populations were to plummet, there may be catastrophic consequences in the form of altered habitats, fluctuating prey populations, and so much more! By conducting research on these populations, we get a better understanding of their biology and ecology. We can also provide the necessary information that managers can use to help mitigate threats from humans such as destruction of nesting beaches, bycatch in fisheries, and strikes by vessels. 

Is there a book, quote, or person that influenced you to be the person that you are today? Tell us why.

My parents significantly influenced who I am today. I was always fascinated by marine science ever since I was little and my parents fully supported that fascination. They would take me to aquariums, vacations along the coast, and would watch endless nature documentaries with me. More importantly, both of my parents have pursued career paths they dreamt of being since they were little, too. If it weren’t for them, I would probably be working in a poorly lit cubicle, being miserable. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love to be outside as much as possible, whether it's hunting in Colorado or training for triathlons. Hunting especially has played a major role in my life and it’s allowed me to immerse myself in nature and observe some truly incredible things. It’s probably the main reason why I love studying animal movement and behavior so much. 

Contact Mitch

A young man and woman crouch next to a large dog at the shoreline of a sandy beach with blue water.
Mitch and his partner, Jess, with their dog, Louis, hanging out at the Rosenstiel Beach in Miami, Florida. Photo courtesy of Mitch Rider

Last updated by Southeast Fisheries Science Center on June 10, 2024