Saturday, February 9, 2013

International Sea Turtle Symposium 2013 "Connections"

As a student from the Midwest, I’ve been slowly working my way into the sea turtle conservation world. There have been some major milestones along my journey, including obtaining my Bachelor’s degree, a number of valuable internships, trips and people. The newest in these major milestones is attending the International Sea Turtle Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation (ISTS), this year held in Baltimore, Maryland. The theme of the symposium this year is “Connections,” which to me, couldn’t be more appropriate. 

            This is the first symposium I’ve attended and I feel that I learned so much from my time there. Annual symposiums like these are designed to inspire collaboration, share information, and build new ideas, while acknowledging affectionately the work of those in the past who have helped to inspire such ideas. 
An example of a presentation I attended. Presentation credit to UNC Chapel Hill, Lohmann Lab.

            The ISTS also serves as a medium to bring people together – particularly members of the International Sea Turtle Society - and create opportunities for networking. This aspect of the symposium was particularly valuable to me, and one of the most tangible ways in which I could see the theme of “Connections” at work in my career.
            First, I could see connections with things I’ve accomplished in the past few years. I saw this embodied in being able to connect again with Kate Shaffer, representing the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, MA,  my first marine animal rehabilitation oriented internship during the summer of 2011. (View my blogs from my NMLC internship here). Being able to talk to her about how things have grown and developed at the center since my visit last spring warmed my heart, and I'm excited to volunteer there next week to see these changes for myself.
            Jean Beasley was also at the symposium along with an entourage of colleagues I met last summer during my internship at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach, NC. I was so glad to see her and discuss the leads I have on starting graduate school in the fall. (To learn more about about my summer internship experiences at the Sea Turtle Hospital, continue below to my previous entries on this page).
Sandy Sly, Brie Myre and Jean Beasley of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital at ISTS 2013

            Re-connecting with dear friends and mentors of the past was enriching and helped to make me more comfortable. While it is certainly exciting to meet successful professionals in the field I want to work in, it also has a certain level of anxiety associated with it. I was able to make many wonderful new connections with professionals working all over the world. This conference had 1,016 attendees – and I tried to meet as many as possible. The symposium attendees represented over 80 countries, the representation of different cultures was fascinating. Walking through the hotel halls, one could hear any number of languages being spoken, people singing and dancing to drum beats.

What I appreciated most about the conference was how approachable and down to earth many of the big names at the conference were. I was floored to be able to meet and discuss ideas and projects with so many accomplished people. There was an exciting event called, “Speed Chatting with the Experts,” in which, for a donation of $5, (the money goes toward the ISTS Travel Grants which help international students to come to the symposium) you could sign up to speak to up to 6 sea turtle experts and ask them any questions that you had. I got some very kind advice and encouragement during my time in these sessions, several of whom offered me names of future contacts that may be able to help me in my journey.Though this field is so competitive, it's nice to know that it is still commonplace for us to help each other progress for the sake of the turtles.
Making all these new connections was exciting because many of these people could be people I would work with in the future. Over the past 6 months, I’ve been rabidly researching graduate school opportunities including dozens of potential advisors. I was excited to meet Dr. Pam Plotkin who was so instrumental in helping me get started with my search, her encouragement and suggestions were very valuable to me in making initial contacts. After reading many prominent professor's publications, I started contacting some of these individuals who completed work that was of interest to me. It was almost surreal to then meet many of these professionals at this symposium. Another example of meeting distinguished professors who I had emailed and talked to over the phone was Dr. Thane Wibbels of the University of Alabama-Birmingham, a prominent expert in sea turtle embryo development. What’s particularly crazy about this connection is that Dr. Wibbels is an alumni of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln! Meeting a fellow alumnus of UNL who has had such success in the field I want to go into was heartening, to say the least.
Dr. Thane Wibbels. Photo credit:
             While on my search for graduate school programs and advisors, I have found two promising opportunities. At this conference I was able to meet both of those potential advisors and students in their programs. My current prospects include working under the advisement of Dr. Eric Koepfler at Coastal Carolina University and working under the guidance of Dr. Roldán Valverde at Southeastern Louisiana University. I enjoyed meeting them, learning more about potential projects, and also hearing from a few of their students, all of which had glowing recommendations.
One evening I was able to have dinner with Dr. Koepfler and his group of budding young sea turtle biologists.

            Another aspect of the International Sea Turtle Society I enjoyed seeing was the “connections” between the big names in sea turtle conservation. They are like a big family – and all had amazing stories to share. These were stories of stopping poachers, diving into the ocean to catch sea turtles for study, using "cutting edge" techniques to remove hooks from turtle stomachs (excuse the pun), learning new languages and helping the public to learn to love turtles as much as we do. A talk I found particularly profound which I thought demonstrated the theme very well was the concluding session. Here, the previous president, Ray Carthy, shared a story connecting himself to Marydele Donnelly, a prominent name in conservation law, (she was also awarded the President's Award this year for all her work on the Marine Turtle Conservation Act). She then shared a story about an experience she had with another person, and so on and so forth until we came to the current president Roldán Valverde. He then told us what to look forward to in regards to the 2014 symposium in New Orleans - I can't wait for next year!

Seeing some examples of these connections in the stories I heard demonstrated something really profound to me – chance meetings, quick encounters, turtles that changed the entire course of careers and lives. Hearing stories about what incredible people are doing all over the world – making personal sacrifices, crossing difficult political and cultural boundaries, innovating technology and medicine to heal, facing bleak and sometimes gruesome situations and blazing trails. All of these things and so much more for the sake of an animal we all love to our cores.
            I spent nearly all my savings to come out to Baltimore and be a part of ISTS 2013, but it was well worth the money. I think of it as an investment in my future. I was able to meet many wonderful people doing big things for sea turtles, and gain inspiration to help push me through the next few months while I prepare for graduate school and continue my own journey. I’m excited to see how the people I met this week will play roles in my life in the coming years.

             Assuming this storm subsides at some point, I will be off to Massachusetts to see my dear friends at the National Marine Life Center to volunteer for a week and see their newly opened hospital! Stay tuned for more updates, and thanks as always for your support.

Did I mention that we had fun? The following photos come from the National Aquarium.

I had to include this one for laughs.

No blog of mine could be complete without a turtle picture or two.