by Meredith Diskin
I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to protecting the environment and our natural resources when I was seven years old. My family had taken a vacation to the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. During that trip we visited Stingray City, an area where stingrays are known to occur in abundance and where visitors can interact with them. From my first encounter with a stingray, I told my parents I wanted to study marine biology and environmental sciences. I became obsessed with Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel, soaking up every ounce of information I could. I also read newspaper and magazine articles, trying to stay inquisitive and understand what mysteries were being solved and what still remained unknown. Most of my free time was spent outdoors, either snorkeling along beaches or hiking in state and national parks. Even though I knew what I wanted to do with my life, I still had to figure out what direction to take within the umbrella of the environmental science realm. Did I want to become a professor or a researcher, or did I want to focus more on public outreach or advocacy work? Also, what topics did I want to study? These questions took a while to answer, and I’m still uncovering them to this day.
At the College of Charleston, I majored in marine biology. I took every biological and environmental science course they offered and loved every second of it. I specifically enjoyed learning about how the surrounding environment impacts the distribution and abundances of organisms. I also interned with the South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network, assisting with marine mammal necropsies and studying the resident dolphin populations. While smelly and dirty at times, I loved this type of work. I loved trying to answer why marine mammals strand on the beach, and whether humans were the cause of it. I began to learn how important our actions are to the world’s natural resources and the other animals that live amongst us.
After I graduated from the College of Charleston, I knew I wanted to pursue graduate school but I was still unsure what topics I wanted to study. I emailed professors all over the U.S. asking about what topics they study in their lab, including Dr. Lee Smee, a professor at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi who studied coastal wetland habitats and the organisms that live in them. I was immediately interested in his research and eventually moved to Corpus Christi work with him as a research technician. From the moment I stepped foot in his lab, I fell in love with coastal wetlands, including salt marshes, mangroves and oyster reefs. Each one carries its own complex world and I loved studying how the animals living within these habitats behaved and influenced the habitat and each other. Within a few months of working with Dr. Smee, he offered me an opportunity to obtain a Master’s in Biology within his lab. I could not accept fast enough!
For my Master’s thesis, I studied how warming climates are allowing tropical mangrove species to expand their distribution further north into temperate climates, pushing out some of the more temperate wetland habitats like salt marshes. I thoroughly enjoyed answering how these increasing mangrove populations are impacting the existing salt marsh communities, including key fishery species like blue crabs and brown shrimp. I learned how to identify many species within the Gulf of Mexico, their behaviors and feeding habits and how they interact with one another. However, I still felt something was missing from my life. I felt like my research wasn’t reaching enough audiences, nor did I have as many opportunities to interact with the public as I wanted to. Some of my favorite memories in graduate school came from times when I was able to speak publicly at local conferences and meetings, teaching people about my research and how it impacts their daily lives. I realized that public outreach and education coupled with research allowed me to feel like I was making a difference and fueled my passion for the environmental sciences, and was something I should pursue in my future.
Then I found Mobile Baykeeper and I knew it was the organization I wanted to start my professional career with. At Mobile Baykeeper I am able to not only provide the public with a means to protect the beauty and health of Mobile Bay, but also educate and inform them on why watersheds are important and what we can do to keep them clean. I am both honored and overjoyed to join this amazing team and be an environmentalist and advocator for the Alabama Gulf Coast.