Happy World Sea Turtle Day!

Happy World Sea Turtle Day!

To celebrate, I thought I’d tell you a bit more about what I do as a sea turtle biologist.

Today I am in the lab, working up small (half the size of a pencil eraser), skin and scute samples from hawksbill sea turtles I sampled last summer. Scutes are what make up the “soccer ball pattern” on a hard-shelled turtle’s back (dorsal) shell.

One of the beautiful hawksbills I sampled last year in Nicaragua is pictured here:

My PhD dissertation research is trying to understand where in the water hawksbill sea turtles are eating, and where they grow up. My research focuses on the eastern Pacific population of hawksbills, which includes hawksbills that live and nest from Mexico to Peru along the Pacific coast of Latin America. Specifically, I conduct my research in El Salvador and Nicaragua, where the two primary nesting beaches are for this population, one in each country. The population that I study is unique in that the female sea turtles prefer to nest in mangrove estuaries, rather than on open coast beaches – like all other sea turtles (as far as we know). This population wasn’t discovered to be nesting in mangroves until 2007! However, we don’t know much about the time spent in these estuaries outside of nesting. This is what I am trying to figure out!

Okay, so what do I actually do?

I am both a social scientist and a natural scientist, and I use methods from both fields to help us better understand where in the water these sea turtles are living. I feel lucky to get to work with the amazing people who live near my study sites of Bahia de Jiquilisco, El Salvador and Estero Padre Ramos, Nicaragua. My work would not be possible without their help and support. I am also thankful to collaborate with the amazing non-profits ICAPO and FFI.

Interviews identified where we should be able to find turtles.


I started my fieldwork by conducting interactive interviews with local fisherman in El Salvador and Nicaragua. These fisherman shared their expert knowledge on where I could find hawksbills within their local estuary, and also why they thought I could find turtles in certain places. This identified where we should be able to find the turtles.

In-water capture showed where we could find turtles at a moment in time.

krw 1

I then returned to the field a few months later, and went out on the boat with some of these fisherman to look for hawksbills in the spots they indicated. When we found hawksbills, we safely captured them (we are all specially trained to do so, please do not attempt to touch or capture a wild turtle), and took the small skin and scute samples that I am currently analyzing. The capture trips taught us where we could find the turtles at a moment in time.

Stable isotope analysis shows where the turtles have been for the past few months (skin) and years (scute).


I am now working in the lab to analyze the skin and scute samples that we took for stable isotope analysis. Stable isotope analysis is based on, “you are what you eat”. The food we eat and the water we drink all has its own environmental fingerprint, when we eat or drink it, our body incorporates that fingerprint into our own tissue – like our fingernails and our hair. For sea turtles, this is incorporated into their skin and into their shell. Their shells are made of keratin, similar to our fingernails. In the lab, we can conduct analyses, called “stable isotope analysis” to extract this environmental fingerprint from the sea turtle tissues and then match that environmental fingerprint to that of the original environment it is from.

Another way to think of this is like a memory match game, when we analyze the sea turtle for the environmental fingerprint we are turning over our first card, then we look for the signature of the environments that matches that we found in the turtle. When they are matched, we can then identify where the sea turtle has been eating! Skin tissue holds the fingerprint for about 3 months, and the scutes can hold multiple years of eating history, so stable isotope analysis can tell us where the turtle has been living over time.

Why is this important?

For the turtles:
Hawksbill sea turtles are critically endangered, which means they are at very high risk of becoming extinct in the wild. In the population I study, it is estimated that there are only 500 nesting females left in the whole population (from Mexico – Peru). To better conserve these turtles, it is important we understand where they are in the water. Understanding where they are in the water helps us better protect those areas, but also gives us insight into how they grow up, what they eat, and what threats they are facing.

For us:
Sea turtles travel through different habitats, and because they do, they are also indicators of the health of those habitats, and can help us understand the health of ecosystems that can be difficult to study – like the open ocean. Oceans are important for humans for many reasons (this short National Geographic Video gives a great overview), one of which is that oceans provide food and jobs for many people around the world, we depend on healthy oceans. Understanding where sea turtles are in the water can help us monitor the health of those habitats.

How can you help?

One of the simplest ways you can help is by reducing your use of single-use plastics, as sea turtles, as well as many other terrestrial and aquatic animals, accidentally eat our trash – yuck!

Here are ways you can have a positive impact on sea turtles!

  • Refuse single-use plastics, opt for reusable canvas shopping bags and reusable mesh produce bags (all machine washable!)
  • Switch out your single-use plastic bottles for a reusable water bottle. They come in all colors, shapes, sizes and some are even insulated to keep your water cold all day!
  • Say no to plastic straws, if you really love straws, opt for reusable and dishwasher safe stainless steel ones!
  • Don’t purchase items made from sea turtle shell, they can be found at markets in other countries – but they are illegal. You can learn more about being a smart traveler here: http://www.tooraretowear.org/

My goal:
My goal as a scientist is to get people excited about nature, about science, to revel in the awesomeness of nature with others, to help people connect to nature. I always aim to share the science that I do transparently, as well as the incredible science my colleagues conduct. I hope to show that anyone can be a scientist – we come from all walks of life. And I hope to inspire young girls who are excited about school, and about science, that being nerdy is awesome, it is something to be proud of!

I love to give talks to schools, zoos & aquariums and other facilites, and can do so in person or via video conferencing. I have given talks from pre-K all the way through college classes. If you are a teacher that I can be a resource for, or you know of one, please feel free to contact me!

Thank you for reading!

Happy World Sea Turtle Day!  





IsoCamp: M.O.R.E. than just Isotopes

IsoCamp 2015 - the 20th year of IsoCamp! photo: facebook.com/StableIsotopes

IsoCamp 2015 – the 20th year of IsoCamp!
photo: facebook.com/StableIsotopes

This summer I had the honor of attending the University of Utah’s prestigious Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry and Ecology Course, lovingly called IsoCamp. The two weeks I spent at IsoCamp was the most rewarding academic experience thus far in my career. The amount of knowledge I gained about stable isotope ecology is insane, and as my qualifying exams are quickly approaching I am feeling confident in my methodological knowledge – all thanks to IsoCamp.

I thought about delving into “what are stable isotopes” and what is this “isotope ecology ‘magic’” that will make up a big portion of my dissertation. But many have written that blog post, and since I should be studying I’m not going to re-write that information. My friend and colleague Lindsey Peavey explains them in a blogpost she wrote on her research.

So, I divulge.

M.O.R.E. – iMportant lessons On Research, camaraderie and the academic Experience*

IsoCamp is a 2 week intensive summer school course geared for graduate students who want to employ these methods in their research. It is taught by THE TOP scientists in their respective fields. I’m talking National Academy of Science Members (trust me, it’s a big deal), scientists who have held presidential appointments, scientists with – no joke – 500+ peer reviewed papers (It took me 3 years to get TWO out, for perspective). These people know their IsoShit.

These IsoPopes, as they are endearingly called, also happen to be some of the nicest academics I have had the pleasure of working with. Nicest doesn’t even do them justice. They represent, to me, what academia can, and should, be like. They show how collaborations, camaraderie, and teamwork can work in academia. They give graduate students, like me who have seen some academic shit, that there is hope – that there is a world within academia where faculty truly want to help their students succeed and they want each other to succeed as well. The IsoPopes did post-docs together, looked for jobs at the same time, and even interviewed for the same jobs, and I bet you they compete for grants too. Through all of this, through what can be the gnarly, competitive nature of academia – they help and support one another. They help and support their students and others’ students. And, they love to teach (or at least they love to teach this course). I had one-on-one conversations with many of the IsoPopes and each one was genuinely interested in my interests, in my project and helped me come up with new avenues, new questions for exploration.

I am not shy about my desire to want to change the world, to do outreach, to get people caring about the environment, but when, on one of the first days, THE IsoPope, Dr. Ehleringer, asked me what I wanted to do when I graduate I was hesitant at first to say “I want to do informal education – I want to bridge the gap between science and the general public”. I was afraid that the director of IsoCamp would be disappointed that I was there, since I didn’t want to be an IsoPope, per say, someday. I was wonderfully and completely surprised by his response. What did he do? First he said he thought that was fantastic, then asked what I was doing with my graduate program to get me there. He then pulled out his cell phone, showed me a picture of his grandkids, followed me on twitter, and then sent me two of his personal contacts – two scientists who have done amazing things for science education, one of whom has held a presidential appointment. Now that I know him, this response isn’t surprising, he wants to help students to be successful in whatever field they choose. Another prime example: as camp progressed and we learned about potential Research in Residence Programs, where Isotopeteers (camp participants) can apply to collaborate with IsoPopes on a project related to their dissertation and career goals. I approached Dr. Ehleringer asked, “Have you ever done a Research and Outreach in Residence Program?” He said no, but as long as I could explain in my proposal that it would help move my career forward, that he would look forward to seeing my application.

Okay, so I could go ON and ON about how freaking fabulous IsoCamp was, but let me get back to why I wanted to write this post in the first place.

As a PhD student in the trenches, it was so refreshing and inspiring to see a group of academics building each other up, supporting one-another and working together. To see a group of academics who wanted to, were good at, and enjoyed teaching . To see a group of academics who truly wanted to help the students understand and were interested in discussions on various topics, even topics that had nothing in common except for stable isotope analyses. To see top-scientists, top academics, make the challenging, long-days incredibly fun and rewarding.

So, while yes, I learned A TON about stable isotope ecology, what I really took away from the experience was a positive view of what academia can and should be.

I hope that every graduate student gets to see that side of academia, gets to feel as empowered, excited and motivated about their project as I have been since leaving IsoCamp. It has truly changed my outlook on the Academy, and days when the dark parts of academia rear their head – I remind myself of IsoCamp and it gives me hope.

*My acronym abilities are clearly out of practice, did I mention it’s quals time?

Note: I am not naive to what could be going on outside of those 2-weeks, I’m sure there have been challenges along the way, but this is the genuine impression I got working closely with the IsoPopes

NSF GRFP: Funding Broader Impacts

NOTE (6 April 18): A few years have passed since I wrote this. Since writing it I do recognize my privilege of being able to live paycheck to paycheck & intern for free post-undergrad, I know not everyone is able to do that. I also recognize that the resources I had available to me at Texas A&M as a new graduate student helped make my application stronger, and that those resources are not available to every one.

There is absolutely the luck of the reviewer draw, as both years I applied I got the same score ratios, but only got funded the second year. I am grateful that the reviewers appreciated my passion for broader impacts, and fought for my application. The year I got funded each reviewer mentioned that my undergrad grades were lacking, and I had no publications at the time of application. Every reviewer mentioned the strength of my letters of recommendation (a few said they were the strongest in the pool), and each mentioned my clear passion for broader impacts and my clear plan to integrate them throughout my PhD. I am not funded for my research, nor my grades, I am funded because I am doing my PhD for the broader impacts, and I am not shy about stating that up front.

If you were funded, congratulations! If you were not, congratulations! Submitting an application is a huge accomplishment in and of itself! I have good friends, who are incredibly talented scientists, who both did and did not get awarded.

You are more than the grants you receive.

Original post April 2015

A few weeks ago the new class of National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships was announced. In response I tweeted a congratulatory:

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.10.25 AMWhen I posted that I was thinking only of how happy, excited and extremely honored I felt to have earned one the year before.

Then I saw discussions arising on social media that were criticizing the NSF GRFP program and their lack of supporting broader impacts/underrepresented groups, and their lack of funding diverse candidates from non-name recognized schools and/or candidates that will serve a diverse public.

I know I am just one example, but I think it’s important for people to know that people do get funded based on their broader impacts. I am a NSF Graduate Research Fellow, and I am one of those people. I also graduated from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), but my undergraduate institution had very little to do with my NSF GRFP, in fact I spent almost half of my tenure at UCSD at different universities. UCSD (including faculty) had nothing to do with the writing or preparation of my application.

Mine may be a special case, but I think it’s important that people know these cases exist and remind people that the public NSF GRFP results don’t give you a full picture of each applicant, only where they went to school – which should neither credit nor discredit them. I am not saying no biases exist, I am not naïve to the politics behind academia/research, this is just my personal experience.

I initially wrote this post in a more reactive/defensive stance, feeling personally attacked that people were alluding to the fact that NSF GRFPs may not be earned, especially if you went to a name-recognized undergraduate institution, which I did. Then I stepped away for a few weeks and realized, rather than be defensive, I’ll be transparent, so here is my NSF GRFP funding story, the one that the institution names don’t tell:

I worked, volunteered and interned for 3 years after I graduated from UCSD. I spent those years bringing science education to underprivileged minorities, helping to reach over 3,000 children in a historically underprivileged school district. I developed STEM education programs and taught them to children from homeless shelters, autistic children, and Mexican children who didn’t speak English. Whose parents’ didn’t speak English, so I translated material so they could understand too. I helped organize and teach free student and teacher conservation education workshops (complete with bilingual resource bags containing activities, books, games, etc.) in a small town in Mexico.

I kept a job that barely paid the bills so that I could continue this work, which became a passion and the inspiration behind pursuing my PhD. I volunteered 10+ hours a week, on top of working full time, to pursue a research internship and also volunteer with a non-profit that brings free science education to underserved school districts. I pursued graduate school applications and took the GRE while working and volunteering and dealing with a death in the family, commuting 3+hours round-trip several days a week to be there for family.

The job that barely paid the bills I took as a “place holder” while I thought I’d figure out what I wanted to do, as I got it after 4 months of post-graduation unemployment. I didn’t know when I started that it would inspire me and instill in me a passion for outreach, especially to underprivileged groups. As a result, the first lines of my NSF GRFP Personal Statement read:

I want to make a difference. I want to influence policy, encourage sustainable change, inspire stewardship and promote STEM education. Earning my PhD is essential in accomplishing these goals.

and my “life sciences” dissertation work has a critical component that helps employ, engage, educate, and give voice to impoverished people in Central America. As well as plans to bridge graduate students and K-12 STEM students.

I am funded for my broader impacts, those past, present and future. One reviewer actually started their review with something like:

Although reproduction of turtles is not an exciting topic…

and then went on to give me an “Excellent”, emphasizing the strength in my integration of learning, discovery, and communication of my project to diverse audiences, and my specific plans to serve underrepresented groups.

Another reviewer specifically cited my “exceptionally strong” broader impacts plan as a reason for supporting my work.

I was not funded for my research on sea turtles. I was not funded because my B.S. was from UCSD, or because my grades or test scores were perfect (they weren’t). I was funded for my broader impacts, specifically for those that target underprivileged and underrepresented groups.

I realize everyone’s story is different, but please consider that you may not have all the information, that the name of the undergraduate university doesn’t give you the whole story and that NSF does fund GRFPs for broader impacts. I may be just one example, but I know that if not for my strong passion for science communication and education that I would not be funded.

I am proud of my NSF GRFP and thankful that NSF does fund graduate students with goals and passions outside of pure research and I am thankful that broader impacts matter to the reviewers who fought for my application.

Grad students: you’re not trapped, if you’re unhappy it’s okay to make a change!

Almost exactly a year ago I felt my whole world falling apart. Well, my PhD world anyways. I had moved myself and my fiancé halfway across the country to pursue what I thought was my dream PhD with my first choice of advisors. In fact, I didn’t apply anywhere else. I had taken almost 3 years off from school after undergrad, worked and interned and thought I had figured out exactly what I wanted out of my PhD.

At first, grad school seemed to be going well. Initially my lab was working for me, I was doing well in classes, and getting great responses from grant applications. However, as my second year of my PhD program progressed I was starting to realize that what my advisors had in mind for my program, for how grad school works and their expectations were becoming more and more opposite of what mine were. Somehow, and I’m still not sure exactly how, we had polar opposite visions of what my future as a PhD student was. I felt miserable all the time, hated going to school, and lost my fight – because I felt I was in a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t environment”; there was no winning no matter what so I just stopped trying. Those that know me know this as a huge warning sign for me, as I am extremely competitive (sometimes too competitive), and I love to prove people wrong if they tell me I’m not capable of something. But this situation was different. I didn’t want to try to prove them wrong, I just didn’t think the fight was worth it.

I was told that I just didn’t have “it”. That I was a failure, a quitter, that I was a bad, lazy student. That my priorities were all wrong. That I needed to suck it up, this is how it is. That maybe I should get a Masters or just walk away.

I thought about my options, thought about getting a Masters instead – maybe a PhD isn’t for me. But I knew that wasn’t what would make it better. I thought maybe I need to just suck it up, maybe this is just what grad school is like. But I couldn’t see myself feeling that miserable for 3-4 more years. Something needed to change. I knew I wasn’t all those things I was being told I was, but when people in a senior position tell you those things repeatedly, it’s hard to not question yourself. I saw my whole world, this dream I had, falling apart.

I reached out to the graduate advisor for my department on campus, as well as a committee member and a few faculty members who knew me well as a graduate student. I reached out to my peers in my cohort, and to my family. I am so lucky and forever grateful to all of them for helping lift me up, helping me realize that I was not trapped, that, as a graduate student I had a choice. If I was unhappy in my lab – it was okay to make a changeI did my best to rectify things with my old lab, but we were not only on different pages about my future as a graduate student, we were in two different books.

People have different philosophies on mentoring, different expectations of the graduate school experience – and that’s okay. You will probably not always see eye-to-eye with your advisor, that’s okay too. But if you find that your and your advisors’ philosophies are getting further and further apart – it is also okay to make a change.

Graduate school is tough, but in the end it should make you happy.

Whatever you decide to do should make you happy.

Sometimes, through a detour, it will lead you right to where you want to be. source: http://goo.gl/BC1g81

This unexpected, trying, terrifying detour of my PhD has turned out for the best
image: http://goo.gl/BC1g81

After 2 years of graduate school, I made the scary decision to leave my lab. At this point I didn’t even have a new lab to join yet, I just knew that this was what was best for me. It was terrifying, empowering and freeing at the same time. I would not be bullied into staying in a situation that was not best for me. It is my education and I have a choice in the matter. It is one of the best choices I’ve ever made – my new lab and new advisor now match what my expectations of graduate school are, I am happy, working on a project I am passionate about, and I look forward to my work, to meetings, to the next 2-3 years of my program. This unexpected, trying, terrifying detour of my PhD has turned out for the best – but it was difficult and took a lot of time for me to deal with and fully process.

Sometimes, through a detour, you’ll end up right where you want to be. As my dad always says, “The process of doing will get it done”.

When I started to tell other graduate students that I had left my lab, everyone said that it was really brave of me to do that, and that they knew other people that had done that too. I assumed I probably wasn’t the only grad student to ever change labs, but it was nice to know I wasn’t the only one who found that a change was needed.

Since then, a handful of my friends have made changes. Some have also changed labs, for similar reasons as mine, some have decided a Masters, both thesis and non-thesis, better suits their goals.

Just because you started on one path doesn’t mean you’re stuck on it.

Talking with friends who have made changes, we’ve all said how we felt “trapped in our PhD”, since we started and committed to it we were stuck with it, even if we realized it wasn’t for us. I think this is a more common feeling than grad students let on, and it is not discussed nearly enough.

If someone you know had started a “regular” job, and after two years decided they were just miserable and didn’t like it, would you say, “well you started this, you have to stick with it, at least for another 3-4 years.”? Hopefully not. Hopefully, you’d say, “well, then, make a change. Look for another job”. Grad school is no different.

This is you life, your dream, your career, your education. 

Grad students, if you’re unhappy it’s okay to make a change – you’re not alone.  

 If you are feeling unhappy in your situation, here are some  suggestions:

  1. Talk to a psychologist: I was nervous at first to use the Psychological Services provided at my university, but I realized I needed help to deal with this overwhelming situation. I didn’t start until a few months after I left my lab – I wish I would have gone sooner. It helped me tremendously. Almost every graduate student I know has, at one point, talked with a psychologist and, honestly, I think every grad student should. I cannot recommend it more.
  1. Self-reflect: Why are you in graduate school? What do you want out of your program? Are you happy? If not, why not?
  1. Talk to an ombudsmen: An ombudsmen is a person in your department or in the office of graduate studies that you can talk to in a confidential matter. You can talk candidly to them about your situation and they can help you figure out what you need to do to move forward.

Thank you to all of those who have supported me along the way!