Jellyfish, worms, surfing- oh my!

What do jellyfish🎐, worms 🐛, and surfing 🏄  have in common? I don’t know I’m not a rocket scientist. But I’m certainly a University of Edinburgh M.Sc Marine Systems and Policies student trying to figure it all out.

Me and my mom!

I first became interested in marine ecosystems as a kid in Colombia. During the warm and breezy summers my mom would take me to the beautiful azure coasts of Cartagena and Santa Marta. I remember riding on tiny wooden boats, amazed at how they floated on the sea, and hopping to and from islands. I also remember looking down at the water during those boat trips, spotting the fish and sea life, and wanting to jump in and join them. After spending time on the water I would be tired and hungry, and always be happy to be treated with a lunch including fresh-caught fried fish with lemon, plantains and rice. The sea was my favorite place, and seeing it always brought euphoric bliss. Beneath the waves lied another world, a world I wanted to explore.

Camping for the first time for this expedition!

It was not until entering university that I realized that becoming a marine biologist was a very viable career for me. It all started by joining on a weekend expedition that a research laboratory group was doing. This was a trip to a salt-marsh in Florida where the researchers were looking for salt-marsh snakes, and we did so at sundown! I felt like I was in a Animal Planet show, and this feeling became stronger when we saw a juvenile alligator and a graduate student jumped in the water to catch it. I realized then that being a scientist was a real job, and I wanted to be doing the same thing.

That following summer I was accepted into the National Science Foundation where I led a project to determine if the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was having sub-lethal impacts on invertebrates living in subtidal salt-marsh sediment (50% which were marine worms). I learned lots about these worms called polychaetes, the cousins of earthworms!

The summer after that I had become interested in jellyfish and I had the privilege of being invited for the summer to join the Italian-based group of the MED-JELLYRISK programme, a cross-Mediterranean project examining socio-economic and trophic impacts of jellyfish blooms in order to create informed coastal management decisions. I first participated in two scientific-stakeholder conferences in Malta and then traveled to Italy to work with the Italian partner group. There I worked in two research teams, in one researching hydroid fouling and potential impacts on aquaculture systems in Taranto, Italy, and in the other, determining digestion rates and trophic impact of a bloom of the understudied hydrozoan species, Velella velella. I learned so much about jellyfish….and good Italian food!
After finishing my thesis at my undergraduate institution (which looked at improving living shorelines that are used to restore coasts and prevent shoreline erosion) I realized that throughout my entire research experiences I had always noted an important social side I was not studying. In Louisiana studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill I realized how local impoverished communities’ livelihoods were devastated by the pollution, in Italy I realized how working collaboratively with and holding multi-lateral discussions with stakeholders were powerful tools in achieving impactful research and lasting solutions, and through my thesis work I realized the importance of community-based ecosystem management.

I realized people are key. People are part of the environment. If I want to protect marine ecosystems for their biodiversity and beauty for future generations I would need to understand people and their actions. Conservation must work for people and the environment if it is to be successful. This is what brought me to apply and enroll in the M.Sc Marine Systems and Policies at University of Edinburgh. It is interdisciplinary, and right now I am taking Development Studies and Integrated Resource Management. These courses are helping me in my future career goals.  In the future I hope to lead multi-lateral initiatives to create science-informed community-based marine conservation and management plans that involve local communities, policymakers, and professionals in varying disciplines. The end goal being to find equitable, and socio-economically feasible solutions to marine issues that will allow people’s livelihoods to thrive while maintaining the biological integrity of marine ecosystems, while building research capacity in developing countries with highly impacted coastal ecosystems.

So far the programme has been great and I am enjoying not only the kind and passionate people I’ve met, but also the perks that have come along- such as surfing 🙂

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