How I Sea: Katelyn Herman
Katelyn is a Research Project Coordinator at Georgia Aquarium, and has spent her life fascinated by marine mammals. Her curiosity has driven her to pursue a career researching the marine environment and working to conserve any and all life in the ocean. She has received her bachelor’s degree from University of Georgia, and her Master’s degree in Marine Conservation and Policy from Stony Brook University in New York.
How long have you been studying the marine environment for? And what’s your field of study?
I’ve been studying the marine environment for roughly ten years. I always had an interest and curiosity about the ocean but I didn’t begin proper studies until attending the University of Georgia for my bachelor’s degree.
My field is quite broad, but my passion has always been to research and protect marine mammals. I began working at the Georgia Aquarium to assist with facilitating our Health and Environmental Risk Assessment (HERA) project for bottlenose dolphins, and I actively participate in our various other research projects that include manta ray habitat utilization and whale shark health assessments.
What made you want to become a marine scientist?
My fascination with marine mammals began at the early age of 6. That passion later expanded to a broader appreciation for the ocean and motivated me to undertake marine science for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. My original motivation was sheer curiosity; today, equipped with a more foundational knowledge than I’ve previously had, my motivations pertain more to conservation.
Being exposed to information about the threats to our world’s oceans and the struggles they face around the world provided me with a reenergized drive to continue my education. I really began to seek opportunities that would allow me to utilize research as an effort for ocean conservation
How have you seen the marine environment that you study change in your lifetime? Both in general and in the context of your research? And how do you think this compares to a larger timescale (ex: your parent’s and grandparent’s generations)?
As a recent addition to the Georgia Aquarium, I am still in the beginning stages of my research. However, our HERA project has been ongoing for approximately 12 years, and by comparing recent information with our initially established baselines we have been able to document changes in the bottlenose dolphins of the Indian River Lagoon, Florida. Because bottlenose dolphins are a sentinel species (an animal that can be used to detect risks to humans by providing advanced warning of danger), we are able to study deviations from the previous baseline to better understand how their environment is changing.
Our efforts have allowed us to examine anthropogenic contaminants (e.g. trace metals, PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, perfluroinated compounds, and PBDEs) and infectious disease agents in the Bottlenose Dolphin populations. This allows us to better understand environmental changes, consider effective conservation procedures, and provide insight into the potential health impacts for the surrounding human population.
I think it’s difficult to determine if the marine environment is changing more rapidly today than in generations past or if we are acutely aware due to other societal changes such as technology. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that the oceans are changing at a more rapid rate due to environmental strains caused by humans such as overpopulation, overfishing, and pollution.
Now more than ever, my hope is for people to recognize the connectivity of mankind and the environment. They are not mutually exclusive entities and once that is more widely understood, we may begin to see the oceans changing for the better.
You’ve recently spent some time up north in NY as well. What do you think is the biggest threat to Long Island’s waters and ocean and why?
I believe the threat is a trifecta of pollution, habitat destruction, and development. Long Island has an exceptionally dense population in a relatively small amount of space. For perspective, the state of GA has approximately 10 million people in 59,400 square miles while Long Island has 7.5 million in 1,400 square miles. When you reach such a high density, it’s increasingly likely that environmental challenges such as pollution, habitat destruction, and development will follow.
What do you think could be done (if anything) to better manage the marine environment there?
Education is key. Living on an island allows for unique marine educational opportunities that are difficult to achieve remotely. Teaching children throughout their education about the importance of conserving the marine environment is laying the foundation for a generation of more ocean minded adults, whether they work in the field of marine science or not.
What’s one everyday thing that you think normal people could do better to conserve the marine environment?
Stop using plastic straws; invest in reusable straws! I have stopped using single use plastic straws and recently bought metal reusable straws. I carry all 8 in my bag so that I’ll have enough for myself and a few friends. Not only has it reduced my personal impact, it has sparked conversation among friends as well as restaurant staff. It’s an incredibly minor change you can make that will have a significant impact.
America alone uses 500 million plastic straws a day – that’s 127 school buses full of plastic straws each day. The majority of those end up in the ocean directly effecting marine life. Cutting plastic straws from daily life is a great way to help reduce your impact.
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