GoAbroad Interview

Beth Whitman - Site Supervisor & Technical Advisory Board Member

With a great desire to understand our environment and the organisms we share it with, Beth Whitman earned her BA at Purdue University and MSc at the University of Virginia. Now, as a doctoral candidate in biology at Florida International University, she focuses on the factors influencing habitat use of green turtles and their role in marine ecosystems. She also works with non-profit organizations to share scientific knowledge with local communities and inspire future generations.

What are the goals of Science Exchange?

The primary goal of TSE is to provide affordable, international, and field-based sea turtle internships for undergraduates or recent graduates looking to pursue a career in science. Additionally, TSE strives to build international collaborations, support sea turtle camps and research, as well as mentor interns to become leaders in research.

Turtle tagging in Abaco, Bahamas

Intern Liberty Boyd, Beth Whitman, intern Laura Thornton, and intern Ryley Parent are all smiles after a successful day of turtle tagging in Abaco, Bahamas. Photo courtesy of www.bbarefoot.com (2016)

What core values do you think are most important at Science Exchange?

TSE recognizes the importance of science education, hands-on experience, international collaboration, and quality mentorship for building our next generation of leaders in the scientific community. Also, understanding and tolerance are built through experience, and TSE ensures our interns are immersed in cultures initially foreign to them and learn to find their place within that culture.

What kind of research and environmental projects have you worked on thus far?

I am currently focused on identifying the factors affecting the foraging behavior and ecosystem role of green turtles in multiple ecological contexts including in The Bahamas, a shark and turtle sanctuary, and when faced with a non-native seagrass invasion in the French West Indies. I use a variety of methods including snorkel surveys, aerial video, and baited remote underwater video (BRUV) to assess the abundances and distributions of green turtles, sharks (turtle predators), and seagrass (green turtle food).

Turtle in Abaco, Bahamas

Beth Whitman collects size data on a turtle captured in Abaco, Bahamas before tagging and releasing it back into the tidal creek. Photo courtesy of www.bbarefoot.com (2017)

I have been involved in many other projects investigating the ecological role of burrowing sea cucumbers in seagrass beds in Abaco, Bahamas, the habitat use and foraging ecology of bottlenose dolphins and American alligators in Everglades National Park.  I also have been a part of researching dive behavior and activity budgets of green turtles of Bahίa de los Angeles, Baja, Mexico, and hydrodynamics affecting larval transport and settlement onto intertidal oyster reefs at the Virginia coastal LTER for my master’s research.

How have your previous work experiences helped you in your current role?

I have been lucky to have had many great mentors and advisors throughout my research career which has provided me with examples to follow when mentoring interns. Allowing someone to make mistakes and problem solve is part of the learning experience, and a supportive mentor allows that to happen while still guiding the intern and project towards success. I’ve also conducted the majority of my research internationally, so I can relate to interns as they face the emotions of finding themselves immersed in a new culture or when facing unexpected challenges in field research.

What does a regular day at Science Exchange look like for you?

During field season I am living and working with interns at my field site in Abaco, Bahamas. Daily, we prep field gear and lunches early in the morning, spend most of the day on the boat or in the water working on one of our projects, return to the field station to clean field gear, and complete the day’s lab work and data entry. We typically use dinner as a time to relax and reflect on the day.

Throughout the rest of the year, I am in regular contact with interns as they format their results into presentations and manuscripts. I make myself available to them when they need advice or letters of recommendation for graduate school or job opportunities.

I also participate in monthly meetings with TSE director and regular advisory board meetings so that we can build upon TSE’s accomplishments and ensure that we continue to provide these experiences to interns for years to come.

Researching in Abaco, Bahamas

Intern Justine Thompson, research assistant Ryley Parent, and Beth Whitman head out for another day of research in Abaco, Bahamas. (2017)

What do you enjoy most about your job?

My favorite part of working with TSE is watching our interns go on to become researchers and mentors of their own. I take great pride in helping interns reach their goals by sharing my research, knowledge and experiences with them.

Do you ensure eco-friendly and sustainable living during a project? How so?

Yes, in Abaco, Bahamas, my field team stays at the Kenyon Research Center run by Friends of the Environment. It was built using sustainable practices and is powered by solar. We strive to use reusable or recyclable products when possible for our research equipment, and we eat primarily vegetarian to minimize our carbon footprint and food waste.

As the intern supervisor, what are some common questions you get before applicants join the Science Exchange team?

I always receive questions about the research, living conditions and packing. To help answer these questions, TSE provides them with a cultural orientation, packing list, biology of sea turtle orientation, introduction to my research, and written documentation about the research center, emergency services and other important contact information. In addition, I provide them with a packing list specific to my field site and work.

What kind of skills do you think are valuable when joining a company such as Science Exchange?

To be successful as a TSE staff member or supervisor, you have to be passionate about scientific research, mentoring and collaboration. Anyone involved with TSE needs to be able to problem solve and manage stressful situations. We work internationally with young adults, and to ensure a safe and successful experience for them, we are always prepared to handle the unexpected.

Taking a video of turtles and their habitat in Abaco, Bahamas

Beth Whitman uses a DJI drone to collect aerial video of turtles and their habitat. Photo courtesy of www.bbarefoot.com (2017)

What is your favorite Science Exchange memory to date?

While I have so many great TSE memories, watching my field interns present their projects at local, national, and international conferences are by far been my proudest experiences. Seeing our interns succeed in their projects and their subsequent endeavors reinforces my drive to continue to support and promote the TSE mission. I also learn a lot about teaching from the interns, which will help me achieve my ultimate goal of becoming a professor at a research university.