Seven months ago, I packed up my bags from the sunny coast of California and made my way across the country to begin my Marine Education Fellowship with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium. After receiving my bachelor’s degree in marine sciences from California Polytechnic State University in 2021, I was ready to take a break from the academic realm and dip my toes into the professional world of marine science. This fellowship provided a unique opportunity for me to immerse myself in informal marine science education, community outreach and aquarium husbandry – a perfect fit for me post-graduation. Since beginning my position in September, I have worked with a dedicated and passionate team of educators, learned about Georgia’s unique coastal ecosystems and cared for a diverse range of aquatic and terrestrial animals.

Ashley Del Core, 2021-2022 Marine Education Fellow

Ashley Del Core, 2021-2022 Marine Education Fellow, stands next to the new cephalopod exhibit she created as part of her fellowship project.

Each year, fellows are tasked with developing an independent project, and I was inspired to come up with something that would enhance the aquarium experience for the approximately 28,000 visitors who frequent our aquarium each year. I recognized a need for more interactive activities and a lack of content about cephalopods – octopuses, squid and cuttlefish. I have always been fascinated by this unique group of animals and desired to educate others about their anatomy, behavior and ecology. After identifying these needs, I came up with the idea to create an interactive mobile cephalopod exhibit for the UGA Aquarium. However, I was faced with a pretty big question – how was I going to fund this project? How was I going to acquire all the resources needed to put together an exhibit? Timing was in my favor, as a funding opportunity arose within our department. Ruth and Tom McMullin, longtime volunteers and supporters of the UGA Aquarium, generously created the McMullin Experiential Education Fund “to provide broad support to spur creativity in public service and outreach…” and “to enhance Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s education and outreach to the public, adults, and children alike.” This was a perfect funding opportunity to support my idea and I decided to apply. I was honored to receive the funding back in November, but I was then faced with another big question – how was I going to design and create a new exhibit without any construction or graphic design experience?

Tom and Ruth McMullin explore the new cephalopod exhibit at the UGA Aquarium.

Tom (left) and Ruth (right) McMullin explore the new cephalopod exhibit at the UGA Aquarium.

With the help of educators and curators here at the aquarium, I established connections outside of our facility to help with the exhibit’s creation. I acquired cephalopod photographs from aquarists at the Georgia Aquarium, Mote Marine Laboratory and the CA Academy of Sciences as well as retired marine biologists and underwater photographers. I reached out to construction professional Tom Hunter from the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, and he very willingly agreed to help me construct the booth. I worked closely with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s communications team to transform my ideas and design drafts into beautiful exhibit prints. I also worked with some of our educators here at the UGA Aquarium to develop content and brainstorm interactive features for the booth.

After five and a half months of planning, designing, constructing and revising, the mobile cephalopod exhibit was finally introduced to the UGA Aquarium on April 26, 2022. Since then, I have had the joy of seeing my vision come to fruition as families and young kids are engaging with the booth’s interactive activities – flippable cephalopod eye panels, an octopus maze and a camouflage wheel! This project has required much interdepartmental collaboration, patience, time management and persistence, but it has been an incredible opportunity for me to challenge myself in pursuing a goal– a goal that could not have been accomplished without the time, support and encouragement of many others.  It is my hope that this exhibit will be enjoyed by many children and families to come and that it will shine a new light upon the amazing world of cephalopods inside our aquarium.