When I stepped off the bus in January 2015 for a week-long field trip with my high school, I had no idea that I was walking into the place I would work as a Marine Education Fellow eight years later. While growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, my favorite vacations were those where I got to leave the city behind and visit the beaches of South Carolina, so I jumped at the idea of spending a week in coastal Georgia as part of my high school’s coastal ecology class. Upon my arrival as a student, I quickly learned that this experience would not be a week-long vacation, but instead a deep dive into the many different habitats that exist in coastal Georgia.  

A young boy wearing a red sweatshirt looks into a microscope as a young adult woman leans over to help

Cochran helps a student use a microscope in the Invertebrate Lab.

While I don’t recall all of my time here as a student, there are certain moments that stand out. The first is the invertebrate lab where we used microscopes to study small marine communities growing on docks. I remember being shocked by the sea squirts and barnacles, and how much there was to see in our dishes! It should come as no surprise that the invertebrate lab is now my favorite class to teach as a fellow. Another cherished memory was doing a salt marsh transect where we had to individually count the periwinkle snails and spartina plants within a specific quadrat. I really enjoyed being able to apply what we had learned in the classroom to our experiences in the field. The part that I remember most was the boat trip to Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine barrier island that we visited in January. My classmates and I sat huddled up inside the boat to avoid the wind chill, but the destination was worth it. I loved getting to explore and compare Wassaw Island to more developed islands that I typically visited on vacation.  

A young adult woman wearing a navy blue t-shirt stands next to a table with a blue cooler sitting on it and holds a blue crab while smiling

Micayla Cochran holds a blue crab at a CrabEcology outreach program.

Returning to Skidaway Island almost a decade later to begin my Marine Education Fellowship was surreal. As part of my fellowship track, I focus on education and outreach. Currently, I’m teaching our CrabEcology outreach program to all third-grade students in public schools in Chatham County. Even though these students live near coastal Georgia, many of them have never visited the coastline or seen a live crab. I love getting to see their eyes fill with wonder and watching their minds work as they come up with various questions about the things that they are experiencing for the first time.  

I think it is important to understand that students, whether they are from Atlanta or Savannah, always have something new to learn about the coastal environment. The same is true for me as an early career professional. When I began familiarizing myself with the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium’s curriculum in the fall, I realized there was so much that I could gain from the center’s senior educators. One of my favorite parts of this fellowship has been the realization that I’m learning and growing alongside the students. When I started this past September, I had my own hesitations that I needed to push past. From overcoming my fear of dissections to comfortably picking up horseshoe crabs, I began to embrace the idea that pushing myself out of my comfort zones is important as that is when I flourish the most. 

The UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium’s educational programs can range from one hour to a week-long visit, which means we don’t always have time to build strong relationships with students. However, even though these visits are brief, I’m able to create connections and share small moments of discovery that hopefully have a lasting impact. There will be students, like me, who become inspired to follow a career in the marine science field. I am so thankful that I have been able to return as a fellow and continue this journey of discovery alongside them.

photo on left of two teenage girls posing with arms around each other on a beach, photo on right of five young adult women standing on beach smiling while holding various shells

Micayla Cochran poses with friend Damaris Zamudio on a high school trip to Wassaw Island in 2015 (left). Cochran on Wassaw Island with other 2022-2023 Marine Education Fellows (right).