When I was an undergraduate, I experienced many great research opportunities outside of the classroom that took me from the Blue Hole in Belize to the Florida Keys. However, the opportunity that has always ranked highest was the summer I worked on the R/V Anna for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. I had a front-row, interactive seat in applied scientific research in my most beloved place, the Georgia coast. After graduation, I worked for a lab in the Department of Marine Sciences as a technician. In this role, I worked on several research cruises, and one lucky day I was granted the opportunity of a lifetime: a deep-sea dive in the HOV Alvin to 1,947 meters.

I can only describe the descent as similar to how space travel is depicted by Lucasfilm. It felt like a jump to hyper speed but underwater with butterflies in your stomach instead of the g-force headache. I found myself thinking that there were parts of the ocean floor that only I had laid eyes on. However, as my mind raced with questions about the awe-inspiring nature of the sea and its creatures, I still found myself drawn back to the Georgia coast. Within days of returning from the trip, I eagerly discussed new research ideas with my prospective graduate advisor, Nate Nibbelink. Through these discussions, we decided to build off the work of a prior student and develop a collaborative estuarine food web monitoring program.

The pilot program, which is spearheaded by Rachel Guy at Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, includes me and my advisor Nate Nibbelink, Damon Gannon at the University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island, Bryan Fluech at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and James Deemy at the Coastal College of Georgia.

The two-part project includes building an estuarine food web model for Georgia that incorporates existing data into the software Ecopath. The second part of the project involves using current and historical data to investigate trends in abundance and diversity of juvenile fish and crustaceans, and determine how those trends may impact the food web, specifically the recreationally and commercially important species that use Georgia’s extensive salt marshes as nursery habitat. To better understand distribution and abundance of these species, we are using historic surveys and establishing the monitoring program to fill the current data gap.

Carroll and UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant staff, Bryan Fluech and Lisa Gentit, look through samples collected while trawling in the Altamaha River.

The research team is sampling for juvenile fish in Sapelo, Doboy, and Altamaha Sounds on a monthly basis. The data collected as part of the estuarine food web monitoring program will enable us to better forecast impacts of long-term and short-term environmental change on coastal Georgia fisheries. Eventually, we hope to expand the program and provide internships and training for undergraduate students passionate about coastal fisheries. Currently, the monitoring program is operating on donated time from the research partners and funding from UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant in the form of my Research Traineeship.

Being part of a collaborative research project from the beginning has been a valuable experience. I get to be involved in meetings and see the decisions being made. More importantly, I get to hear the rationale and conversations that drive those decisions. Also, this collaborative project has provided a sense of community. It could be the pandemic talking, but I sense the camaraderie among the researchers and professionals involved.

As the research team began selecting sites and testing gear, I was invited to Sapelo Island, Georgia, to join in on the fun. From the moment I arrived at the ferry dock, I could feel the essence of community. Neighbors were helping one another load supplies. Others were checking in on the each other, asking about their families. I would like to think that I would have noticed these essential connections at any time, but it appeared especially potent and necessary during this pandemic. I saw island citizens and researchers socially distanced but still joining together as one community. At first, I felt like an observer, but I was quickly welcomed into the community during my stays on the island.

This year has brought more hardships and feelings of seclusion than we ever could have expected; however, it has also brought back joy and appreciation for the little things that were once overlooked. I had hoped to gain knowledge, skills, experience and a successful thesis from my project. I never expected to gain a community.