Q) All right. Jessica, could you tell us about your undergraduate background?
Jessica: I went to the University of Georgia. I graduated in the spring of 2020. I got my Bachelor of Science in Biology with a concentration in marine biology. And I also got minors in English and Spanish for fun. I had basic biology classes and then a couple marine science classes thrown in there like oceanography, marine mammals and stuff like that. While I was in undergrad, I did a lot of work with the Georgia dolphin ecology program, which was looking at like the local population of dolphins on the Georgia coast, So I did a lot of work with them as a volunteer through all four years of undergrad. I also did an internship with the Sarasota dolphin research program. And then I did some literature review research for one of my oceanography professors during undergrad. So, the marine sciences stuff I did led me toward grad school.
Q) Did you come to the College of Charleston to work specifically with Dolphins?
Jessica: That would have been nice. I was very interested in mammals, but I also was interested in how human activity influences animals and their stress in general. Using marine mammals would have been a cool thing, but I was also open to anything as long as it was interesting to me. I saw a couple people that did mammal stuff here that I was like, Oh, that could be fun to talk to them.
Q) Was there any correlation with your undergraduate experience pertaining to this graduate program?
Jessica: I was interested in marine biology from the beginning, So I always knew I wanted to do that. I felt like I wanted more background on marine biology before I went to get a job. So, that’s why I wanted a master’s degree and a marine biology-specific degree. I just wanted to get more research experience and become more of a jack of all trades versus being extremely focused on being a Dolphin photo ID kind of person. That’s why I decided to go the graduate school route.
Q) Why did you choose to do your master’s degree at the College of Charleston?
Jessica: I liked that I didn’t have to have an advisor coming into it. I had struggled with finding other schools and communicating with other professors at other schools, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities for me elsewhere. This program was also cheaper than some of the other programs I had looked into.
Also, I liked the presence of a Marine Lab campus and the strong connections to institutions like DNR and NOAA close by which allowed me to access a wide array of research opportunities. I was particularly drawn to the prospect of delving into various aspects of Marine Biology that hadn’t been introduced to me during my undergraduate studies.
Q) What was your favorite class in the program and why?
Q) What was your favorite project during the program?
Jessica: I have to think about that. I enjoyed my independent study microbiology class with Heather Fullerton. We would get samples from out in Charleston Harbor, and used PCR and genetics to isolate specific bacteria that we’d find in those samples. Learning this process and creating phylogenetic trees from the RNA we collected was quite fascinating. While I wouldn’t say I mastered it, I still found it rewarding to pick up these new techniques.
Q) What was your experience with your cohort like?
Jessica: They’re all really good friends of mine. And we all get along really well. I think we all really worked well together when we were in the core classes together and helped each other out and helped teach each other how marine biology operates. So, I was glad to have a group of students that I did the whole journey with, and it has been cool to see us all transform from little first years to graduating and defending our theses. It’s really cool to see the journey of everyone’s research kind of complete itself as you go along.
Q) What would you say are the benefits to the small class size?
Jessica: You get to know the professors and faculty very well. They learn your strengths and weaknesses as a student and can give you individualized help. In other programs with 50 to 100 kids, you’re not going to get that one-on-one experience. In our smaller labs, you have more time to ask questions and get more feedback as you’re working, which was helpful, especially in physiology. I never knew what was going on in physiology. So it’s good to be like, ‘hey, Jody, can you come and show me what I’m doing wrong?’ They helped build a cohort experience where we got to know each other and the faculty and build more relationships with them.
Q) How important is networking and mentorship in this program?
Jessica: I think it is important. I got my job via networking. I feel like the faculty here really want to help mentor you and help introduce you to a lot of other people. I’ve met many people through my advisor and the Carolinas regional chapter for SETAC, -Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry – so I’ve met people from different institutions like that in the Carolinas, which has been cool.
I think having the different institutions around here has kind of expanded my network because now I know people from NOAA who are great connections that can show me other people or other institutions that I could investigate for my future career.
I think there’s a lot of opportunities for networking. Your advisors are good mentors too. My advisor at least was particularly good at trying to help me and show me the types of ways that they thought I could be a good scientist and things to look out for that might not be the best as I completed my research. That was really helpful.
Q) What role did networking play as part of your experience in the program?
Jessica: The Friday seminars were a good opportunity for networking. The seminars like Craig’s are also useful to meet other people. When you’re first entering the program, you meet people from DNR and from NOAA that are potential advisors. So that helps us because here’s someone I can at least reach out to in the future for any advice.
Q) How does the program seek to place students after graduation?
Jessica: There’s not anything built into the program to place you anywhere. I feel like that’s more for the individual student to kind of look for opportunities. But again, I think because there’s three different like major institutions right here. There are a lot of opportunities that you could find jobs or potential places to look for jobs around here just by asking around. But, besides going to someone and asking for advice, there’s not anything in the program. That’s like, ‘here’s how to get to this specific career.’
Q) What advice do you have for prospective students considering the program?
Jessica: Keep your research interests open. I feel that one of my professors during undergrad, with whom I worked closely, often emphasized the importance of focusing on a question rather than a specific species. This approach has significantly aided me in identifying core questions I want to explore as a scientist. Instead of limiting myself by saying, ‘I’ll only work with dolphins,’ I’ve broadened my skill set, which can be applied to various research areas. Now, I can channel these skills towards more specific questions. Therefore, I recommend keeping your research interests open, engaging with a diverse group of individuals to gauge their potential as advisors, talking to fellow students in the program to understand their experiences, and considering the financial aspects, as well as the support offered by the school, regardless of your choice.”
Q) Is there anything that you wish you would have done differently during grad school?
Jessica: “In terms of my own research, I believe I could have improved my time management skills. Initially, my advisor often stressed the importance of preparing to conduct experiments more than once. He encouraged us to be ready for additional effort and to anticipate worst-case scenarios. When I began my research and encountered setbacks, I found myself asking, ‘Why isn’t this working as I planned?’ His response was always, “This happens.”
Prepare to conduct experiments more than once. Challenges are common; and you must prepare for them. Initially, I lacked this mindset. I’ve since realized the value of entering research with the expectation that things may not go perfectly the first time. It’s crucial to remain flexible in the face of errors or mistakes and to seek assistance when needed.
I also learned the importance of making time for myself, especially in a bustling city, while maintaining a strong work ethic. Over time, I became better at balancing these aspects. During my challenging first year with classes, I adhered to a valuable practice of taking one day off a week, which I consider essential.
Q) Now that you’ve graduated what are you doing now?
Jessica: I’m currently working as a contractor with NOAA, based right down the road at Hollings Marine Lab. Specifically, I’m part of the ecotoxicology branch, and my role involves analyzing various samples for biomarkers. Right now, there’s a significant focus on PFAS. NOAA recently conducted this massive mesocosm experiment where they exposed a whole range of different animals and plants to PFAS.
My job essentially revolves around diving into these samples and figuring out how PFAS exposure impacts the detoxification processes in these animals and the different enzymes within their bodies. It’s a fascinating area of work. While I’m currently juggling a few other tasks, my main gig is as a contractor with NOAA, where I’m focusing on biomarkers for various contaminants, including PFAS.
Along the way, I’m also lending a hand with other toxicity tests that they’ve got going on and assisting fellow graduate students in the lab. For instance, I’ve been working closely with Anna, helping her out with some of her projects. It’s all about being that extra pair of hands to run tests and uncover how compounds like PFAS affect the estuarine species in our area.
Q) What made you decide to pursue this path?
Jessica: I’ve always been drawn to a career in research. However, I knew I didn’t want to pursue a PhD right away. After my undergraduate studies, I felt the burnout creeping in. So, I made a conscious decision to take a break before considering a PhD. My goal was to gain more experience and get a real taste of what it’s like to work in research, especially within the government sector, which can be quite different from the private sector.
Then, an opportunity presented itself when Marie de Lorenzo reached out to me via email. She mentioned that there was an opening that she thought would be a good fit for me, and I thought, “Why not?” Marie has described it as a steppingstone for me, which sounded promising. It allows me to dip my toes into government research, helping me determine if it’s a good fit. If not, I can explore other options, perhaps in the nonprofit sector or something related to educational outreach.
My passion lies in research; I’ve never really wanted to teach. While I admire educators, it’s just not my calling. This program has been instrumental in confirming that academia isn’t the right path for me. I’d rather focus on conducting research without the added responsibility of teaching.
So, the opportunity was there, and I took it. It’s an excellent way for me to gauge my interest in this type of research and to explore other potential avenues, like nonprofit work or educational outreach, in the future.
Q) How do you think the program prepared you for your career and any future endeavors?
Jessica: I believe that conducting my thesis research has equipped me with a diverse skill set. Through this research, I delved into microbiology techniques, such as culturing bacteria and algae. Additionally, I had the opportunity to work with microplastics, delving into basic toxicology concepts, conducting experiments, ensuring the well-being of animals during experiments, and handling dosing. I also honed my skills in microplastics-specific research, involving tissue digestion, filtration, and the meticulous counting of microplastics. These experiences have broadened my skill set and complemented my prior field research background.
What’s particularly valuable is that these skills are applicable to a wide range of research areas, making them versatile assets. Furthermore, I’ve honed my writing abilities, even though I considered myself a proficient writer. Crafting a thesis in manuscript format proved to be a distinct challenge and a valuable learning experience.
Moreover, the program’s core curriculum has given me a solid foundation of broad knowledge. Concepts from physiology and ecology, for instance, have allowed me to comprehend the physiological responses of the mud snails we’re studying and how PFAS exposure might affect their physiology, potentially leading to ecological repercussions. This foundation serves as a baseline for me to tackle future research questions effectively.
Q) How has your current job allowed you to grow as a professional?
Jessica: I’ve certainly made the transition from being a student to a full-time researcher, and it’s been quite the journey. I started this job on June 1, so it’s been roughly two months, and the shift from student life to the research world has been fascinating. I’ve been getting acquainted with how a new lab operates and navigating the process of learning unfamiliar protocols. It’s all about acquiring new skills to add to my toolkit.
Another aspect I’ve enjoyed is interacting with other professionals. It’s given me a unique opportunity to observe how different individuals go about their daily routines and how diverse paths exist within the same field. Everyone seems to have their own approach, and it’s intriguing to witness the various skills that can be applied to ecotoxicology.
In essence, I’m building a new set of skills that I believe will serve me well in the future. Moreover, I’m gaining a broader understanding of how to conduct research in toxicology, which is distinct from my thesis work. My thesis mostly focused on exposure and observing the outcomes, while my current role delves into the mechanistic explanations behind the adverse effects we observe. It’s like uncovering a whole new facet of the field, and I find it quite intriguing.