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Alumni in Action: Ashley Meade

Header photo by Laura Palma

Ashley Meade is a recent WEC graduate. She worked last summer and fall in St. Croix as a research assistant for the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research (ACCSTR) at UF under Alexandra Gulick, a graduate student conducting her dissertation research to evaluate green turtle grazing dynamics and behavior, and the productivity of grazed seagrass meadows in the Caribbean.

We interviewed her over her spotty WiFi connection last November.

Research conducted under NMFS Permit 16146

What do you do?

The overarching goal of this research is to understand the impacts of green turtle population recovery on seagrass communities. Our field work is conducted in collaboration with the National Park Service at Buck Island Reef National Monument in St. Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands) where I have been living since May. Field work for me means waking up early in the morning, crewing a NPS vessel out to the seagrass meadows, and conducting science dives to deploy stationary cameras and establish exclosure cages we built to keep out sea life so we can measure productivity. Most days, I spend a few hours underwater with my head buried in a quadrat, identifying and counting the seagrass and rooted algae, and collecting above and belowground biomass samples. I also assist with lab work, data entry, video analysis, and making maps of our study sites with GIS. Working on this project has allowed me to work hard at work worth doing, and I love using my WEC degree to do so.

How did you focus your education to qualify for this work?

 

While at UF for my undergrad, I took two classes in sea turtle biology taught by Dr. Bjorndal (used as focus courses for my major in WEC and minor in Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences). After taking her courses, I landed a job at the Bald Head Island Conservancy conducting nocturnal sea turtle saturation tagging research. When I returned to UF, I started volunteering as a lab assistant with ACCSTR, processing samples from an awesome study on blue carbon storage and green turtle grazing conducted by Robert Johnson and Alexandra Gulick. I was then offered the position I currently have, and I worked to attain my AAUS Scientific Diving certification in my final semester.

What are you learning?

One of the coolest aspects of my job is applying lessons I learned in WEC to the underwater world. In Wildlife Techniques, I learned about stationary cameras, field navigation, and vegetation sampling, and now I do that underwater. I have over 100 scientific dives logged, and the intensity of our field work has made me a more efficient technician. By working with a graduate student, I am also learning more about study design, which makes me excited for the prospect of conducting my own graduate research.

Learning how to do behavior video analysis has been a valuable experience as well. It has been a lot of fun watching undisturbed green turtles grazing and watching animals I likely would never see if I were in the water. Some highlights include a female tiger shark, a scorpionfish eating an octopus, curious squids, and seeing conchs move. Watching the videos has helped me to better understand the seagrass ecosystem I work in.

I have also volunteered for collaborators and biologists with the National Park Service on various projects including saturation tagging with nesting sea turtles at Buck Island and Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, conducting in-water sea turtle research with USGS, and diving for the NPS acoustic array project. Learning how biologists use acoustic technology to study the spatial ecology of so many different animals in the park has been a real treat.

What was it like getting hit by two Category 5 hurricanes in a row?

Exhausting. I’d like to think that growing up in Florida prepared me for hurricanes, but St. Croix is a lot different. Irma didn’t hit us too bad. I spent Maria huddled in a bathroom with my housemates, wondering what the cause was for each terrifying sound and pressure change that pained my ears. The next day, I walked outside to an eerie brown hillside stripped of chlorophyll. I was lucky and the house I live in sustained minimal damage. Observing wildlife in the aftermath of a hurricane was interesting. Bees and wasps seemed to have vertigo, floating aimlessly and landing on me as I walked to higher spots on the hill to get enough service to tell my family we survived. It was hard seeing the damage to the island, but with each day there are improvements. Vegetation has returned to its lush state. Power has been restored to isolated downtown areas. Power lines are being cleared from roads. I still don’t have power, but I’m good at adapting to whatever situation I’m in.

St Croix before and after Hurricane Maria

Starting field work after the hurricanes was a huge relief, and the excitement helped us to power through some busy and chaotic weeks. Every time we hit a road block, we say “science will prevail”, we get creative, and we finish the job.

~

This interview by Rhett Barker.

Thanks to Ashley for answering our questions, and for hiking up a hill to receive them!

To learn more about the Archie Carr Center for sea turtle research, click here!

To learn more about majoring in WEC at UF, click here!