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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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UVI Navigating Home

The University of the Virgin Islands has become a beacon for young scientists aspiring to make a difference in marine and environmental sciences through its prestigious fellowship programs.

These programs, supported by significant grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation, aim to cultivate local talent from historically marginalized or underrepresented groups in STEM fields. The overarching goal is to bridge the gap between academic training and professional careers, particularly within the geosciences.

One of the key components of UVI’s fellowship offerings is the Navigating Home Fellowship headed by Kristin Wilson Grimes. This program places fellows in various positions with territorial partners such as the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the National Park Service, and other environmental organizations. The fellowship provides both short-term and long-term placements, allowing recent graduates to gain practical experience while contributing to local workforce needs.

Kristin Wilson Grimes, Navigating Home project lead. (Submitted photo)

Larissa Sweeny, a dedicated fellow with the National Park Service, exemplifies the impact of this program. After completing her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Nova Southeastern University, Sweeny found her passion for wildlife conservation rekindled through her work with the Buck Island Sea Turtle Research Program. Her duties involve conducting day and night patrols to monitor sea turtle activities, collecting morphological data, and developing conservation techniques to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures on turtle nests.

In her second week as a Navigating Home Fellow, Larissa visited the Salt River Bay National Park and Ecological Preserve in St. Croix to assist with data collection at one of the long-term mangrove plots. This includes identifying, counting and measuring the growth of existing mangroves and tagging new ones. Larissa is mentored by Kristin Ewen at the National Park Service. (Submitted photo)

Sweeny’s typical day starts early, with day patrols at Buck Island. She navigates the beaches, searching for signs of sea turtle activities such as tracks, nests, and disturbances in the sand. Each track tells a story of the turtle’s journey, whether it’s laying a nest or merely exploring the shoreline. In the evenings, the nocturnal patrols begin, running from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. These patrols are crucial for gathering detailed data on the turtles, including tissue and shell samples, which help in understanding their health and reproduction patterns.

One of  Sweeny’s most significant contributions has been developing methods to protect sea turtle nests from the rising temperatures. She has spearheaded a project to create shades over the nests, aiming to reduce the sand temperature and prevent the eggs from overheating. Additionally, she designed water gauges to monitor groundwater levels and prevent nest inundation, ensuring higher survival rates for the hatchlings. These conservation efforts are vital as they address the immediate threats to sea turtle populations and contribute to long-term sustainability.

Sweeny’s hands-on experience with the sea turtles has not only solidified her career aspirations in wildlife conservation but has also provided her with invaluable skills in research and fieldwork. This fellowship has been a stepping stone, guiding her toward a future where she can continue to make meaningful contributions to the preservation of endangered species.

Chloe Camacho, another shining star of the fellowship, works as a Coral Restoration Fellow in Marilyn Brandt’s lab. Camacho’s journey began with her participation in the Seas Islands Alliance Program during her undergraduate years at UVI. Now, as a fellow, she engages in various fieldwork activities, including water quality monitoring and coral restoration projects. Camacho’s role extends beyond scientific research; she actively participates in outreach programs, educating the community about the importance of coral ecosystems.

Being a Workforce Fellow takes on many different roles. In her fellowship, Chloé Camacho helps with community-focused coral restoration and awareness projects. For example, at the Earth Day Fair held on St. John in May, Chloé spoke with over 200 students about coral restoration. Chloé is mentored by Dr. Marilyn Brandt at the University of the Virgin Islands. (Submitted photo)

In her role, Camacho spends a significant amount of time in the field, conducting coral health assessments and restoration activities. One of her key projects involves the Acropora Monitoring Program, which focuses on the health and growth of Acropora corals, a genus that includes several critically endangered species. Camacho and her team visit multiple sites around St. Croix and St. Thomas, diving into shallow waters to document the condition of coral colonies. They take detailed photographs, measure growth rates, and record instances of bleaching, disease, and predation.

In addition to fieldwork, Camacho plays a pivotal role in community outreach. She participates in events such as Earth Day celebrations and the Agricultural Fair, where she educates residents about coral reefs and their importance to the local ecosystem. Through interactive sessions with schoolchildren and public demonstrations, Camacho helps raise awareness about coral conservation, aiming to foster a sense of pride and responsibility in the community.

Camacho’s fellowship has been transformative, allowing her to delve deeper into the field of coral restoration and inspiring her to pursue a master’s degree. Her dedication to both scientific research and community education highlights the comprehensive nature of the fellowship, which equips participants with a broad range of skills and experiences.

Miranda Goad, a fellow in Rick Nemeth’s lab, focuses on fish biology, specifically the life cycle of stoplight parrotfish. Goad’s research involves analyzing the otoliths (ear bones) of parrotfish to understand their early developmental stages. This intricate work, which requires precise handling and detailed observation, feeds into broader fisheries management efforts, ensuring sustainable fishing practices.

Workforce Fellow Miranda Goad has been busy retrieving and processing fish ear bones, called otoliths. Otoliths grow rings like a tree and can offer insight into a fish’s age and growth. Miranda is mentored by Richard Nemeth at the University of the Virgin Islands. (Submitted photo)

Goad’s day-to-day activities vary between fieldwork and lab analysis. In the field, she embarks on boat trips, diving into the waters around the Virgin Islands to capture juvenile parrotfish. These expeditions are part of a larger project aimed at studying different habitat types, such as coral reefs and hard-bottom areas, and their role in the growth and development of parrotfish. Back in the lab, Goad meticulously processes the otoliths, using microscopes to examine the growth rings that reveal the fish’s age and growth rates.

The data Goad collects is crucial for understanding the life cycles of parrotfish and their interactions with their habitats. By identifying the preferred habitats and growth patterns of these fish, her research contributes to effective fisheries management strategies, ensuring that parrotfish populations remain healthy and sustainable. This work is particularly important as parrotfish play a vital role in maintaining the health of coral reefs by controlling algae growth.

Goad’s initial interest in marine science was sparked by a passion for shark biology, and her work with parrotfish has provided her with a solid foundation in fish biology. The fellowship has been instrumental in honing her research skills and solidifying her career aspirations, positioning her for future success in the field of marine science.

These fellowship programs at UVI are more than just academic opportunities; they are life-changing experiences that open doors to professional growth and personal fulfillment. Fellows receive comprehensive benefits, including health insurance, retirement benefits, and relocation expenses, ensuring they can fully immerse themselves in their roles without financial strain. Specialized training in areas such as mental health first aid, science communication, and community engagement equips fellows with the skills needed to succeed in their careers and make a lasting impact on their communities.

Wilson Grimes emphasizes the transformative nature of these programs. “We’ve never had a program like this in the Virgin Islands,” she explains. “It provides an amazing opportunity to build both local STEM workforce capacity as well as the national STEM workforce capacity. Not only do fellows receive full benefits, but they also gain invaluable experience through specialized training and mentoring.”

The Navigating Home Fellowship and similar programs demonstrate UVI’s commitment to fostering local talent and addressing workforce shortages in critical areas such as marine and environmental sciences. By providing structured pathways from education to employment, these programs not only support individual career development but also contribute to the broader goal of sustainable development and environmental stewardship in the Virgin Islands.

The success of these fellowship programs is made possible through the collaboration between UVI and various territorial partners. These partnerships ensure that the fellows’ work aligns with local workforce needs and provides tangible benefits to the community. For instance, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the National Park Service play crucial roles in offering placement opportunities and supporting the fellows’ research and conservation efforts.

The experiences of  Sweeny, Camacho, and Goad reflect the diverse opportunities and profound impact of the fellowship programs at UVI. Their stories illustrate the power of education and hands-on experience in shaping future leaders in marine and environmental sciences.

Sweeny’s Journey to Wildlife Conservation 

Reflecting on her journey,  Sweeny emphasizes the importance of the fellowship in shaping her career. “This program has allowed me to explore my passion for wildlife conservation in ways I never imagined. Working with sea turtles has been a transformative experience, and I am now more confident in pursuing a career in this field. The support and guidance I received through the fellowship have been invaluable.”

Camacho’s Path to Coral Restoration 

For Camacho, the fellowship has opened doors to new possibilities and inspired her to further her education. “Before this fellowship, I never considered pursuing a master’s degree. Now, I am determined to continue my studies in coral restoration. The fieldwork and community outreach have been incredibly rewarding, and I am excited to contribute to the conservation of our coral reefs.”

Goad’s Exploration of Fish Biology 

Goad’s experience with the fellowship has solidified her commitment to marine science. “Working with parrotfish has provided me with a deeper understanding of fish biology and fisheries management. This fellowship has been a stepping stone in my career, and I am grateful for the opportunity to gain practical experience and develop my research skills. I look forward to continuing my journey in marine science, with a focus on shark biology.”

As these fellows continue their journeys, they embody the potential of UVI’s fellowship programs to transform lives and communities. Their stories of dedication, discovery, and growth inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM fields and contribute to the preservation of our natural world. The University of the Virgin Islands, through its innovative and impactful fellowship programs, stands as a testament to the power of education and opportunity in shaping a brighter, more sustainable future.

The fellowship programs at the University of the Virgin Islands exemplify the institution’s commitment to nurturing future leaders in marine and environmental sciences. Through hands-on experience, specialized training, and strong partnerships with territorial organizations, these programs provide invaluable opportunities for young scientists to develop their careers and make meaningful contributions to their communities.

The stories of Sweeny, Camacho, and Goad highlight the transformative impact of these fellowships, demonstrating how education and practical experience can drive positive change in both individuals and society. As UVI continues to support and expand these programs, it paves the way for a new generation of scientists dedicated to preserving and protecting the natural world.

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