Tell us about your work/research. What kinds of things do you do?
I work on marine-related issues that affect the Fish and Wildlife Monuments and Refuges in Hawaii and the Pacific. There are four Monuments in the Pacific; Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, and Rose Atoll Marine National Monument. This is a large area, and we are dealing with threats ranging from climate change, invasive species, marine debris, and ship groundings. The project I am most excited about is dealing with invasive species. Palmyra Atoll, one of the refuges in the Pacific Remote Islands MNM, is being threatened by an invasive species called a corallimorph. The corallimorphs are killing the corals and replacing them as the dominant species on the reef. We have developed two methods, one using hot water and the other using a toxicant mixed with paste, that we hope will control the corallimorphs. If it is successful, the methods would help other managers control a wide variety of marine invasive species and would help protect coral reefs worldwide.
What sparked your initial interest in your career?
I lived in Puerto Rico for five years between the ages of 2 and 7. Our family had a boat and we would spend weekends snorkeling and spearfishing. My dad taught us how to hold our breath underwater, catch lobster, and we had small spears for catching fish. I think that experience is what originally got me comfortable in the ocean and started me towards a career in marine ecology. During high school, we moved to Hawaii and I took classes in marine biology and oceanography. That really cemented my love for the ocean and desire to spend more time learning about marine life. I wanted to see all the fish in the ocean, and as I started seeing more coral reefs and how diverse they were I just became amazed at the number and kinds of creatures living in the ocean. I especially love the cryptic symbiotic species, those little animals that live on other animals. There are crabs that live in the mouths of sea cucumbers, shrimp that look like the spines of sea urchins, and crabs that carry sponges on their backs. That is pretty cool!
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
My dad got me comfortable in the water. He would have my brother and I compete for how long we could hold our breath underwater. By five I could hold my breath for two minutes, which helped a lot with free diving. I also had great teachers in college who encouraged me to learn more about the world. They took me on expeditions to the Galapagos Islands and throughout the mainland US to study the ecology of marine and terrestrial species. They showed me that filed work can be a lot of fun!
What element of your work/study do you think is the most fascinating?
My job has allowed me to go SCUBA diving on some of the best reefs in the world. Dropping to the bottom at Palmyra Atoll and being surrounded by sharks, fish, manta rays, and dolphins are incredible. I've been to the Maldives where I was in the water with five whale sharks and 50 manta rays all feeding in a small lagoon. I collected samples for genetic studies in Palau and Fiji and saw the swarming mass of fish on the walls and drop-offs. There are so many things to see underwater, and it is so different and more beautiful than anything on land.
What other jobs led you to your current career?
I volunteered in high school to spend three months on an uninhabited island monitoring sea turtle nesting. I was later paid to do the same job for 6 seasons. I have also worked as a dive instructor, spent a year working as the underwater photo-pro on a live-aboard dive boat, studied coral reef fish, worked in a molecular genetics lab, did humpback whale photo-id studies, taught biology labs, and helped a lot of other people with their work. I think the best thing you can do for a marine science career is getting as much experience as possible working with others. I learn so much more when I collaborate with people who have different knowledge and skills than I have.
What are your degrees and certifications?
Bachelor of Science in Biology, Masters in Wildlife and Fisheries Science, and PhD in Zoology.
What are your hobbies?
I love long distance ocean swimming, especially when there is cool stuff to see. I also enjoy long backpacking trips, and every year or two I spend a month in the mountains hiking long trails. I also do a lot of day hikes at home, and I love to travel and experience different cultures.
How did you get involved with the Nautilus Exploration Program?
I am the resource monitor on the expedition, so I was asked to go as part of my job with FWS.
What advice would you give someone who wants to have a career like yours?
You never know what you are going to do after school, so make sure you get a basic education in college and don't specialize early in marine biology. Volunteer as often as you can to learn from others and gain new skills. Learn how to repair equipment because things are always breaking and if you are the one that can fix them then you are invaluable to the team. Computer programming and database management are important skills for any biologist. Do your best at every job you have and realize the work you do now will help you get your next dream job. Don't just do the minimum at a job, think of how you can do more. The people I have seen go the farthest in their careers are the ones who have stepped up and taken on more responsibility, not the ones who wait to be told what they can do.