Meet Miranda Goad, an undergraduate student with the U.S. Virgin Islands hub of the SEAS Islands Alliance.
Can you tell me about yourself?
I’m from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and I’m currently getting my bachelor of science in marine biology at the University of the Virgin Islands. I’m a bit of a super senior at this point. I was originally an art major at my previous college, so I’ve had to make up some of the science classes since I changed majors.
What inspired you to study science?
I always had a bit of a fascination with science when I was a kid. I remember one Christmas, at about the age of 6, my parents bought me this solar system diorama and within 10 minutes I had the whole system memorized. But I’d say watching Shark Week and science documentaries with my dad was really what piqued my interest in marine science.
How did you find out about the SEAS program?
The university encouraged a lot of its science majors to apply for summer research. They have an Emerging Caribbean Scientists Program, so SEAS was part of that. After my application, they reached out and said I’d been selected as a candidate to be part of the Grimes Lab looking at mangrove research. I thought that sounded really interesting, so that’s what I ended up doing for the summer.
Can you tell me more about that project?
We used trail cams, or trap cameras, and looked at animal activity between the different mangrove forest types. I’m actually still working through the photos. It’s carried over from summer research into the fall semester. Some of the cameras caught like a thousand photos in one week because one little branch was blowing in the breeze triggering the camera. But it’s been interesting to see the diversity of animals throughout the forest. We looked at fringe, basin, and salt pond mangrove forests. Preliminary data is showing a lot of diversity in the fringe forests, but we haven’t gotten to our second salt pond site yet. I know there are a lot of animals in those photos, so I’m very interested to see how it turns out.
What kind of animals have you seen in the photos so far?
The most so far have been rats and mongooses. In the Virgin Islands, both of those are nonnative and invasive, so they’ve been introduced from other locations. The rats came on ships. The mongooses were brought in to deal with the rats. But nobody took into account that mongooses are diurnal, meaning they are out in the day, and rats are nocturnal, so they’re out at night. Because of those sleep cycles, they just never see each other. I know from reviewing photos from one site that there are a lot of birds, like seagulls and ducks. We also had a dog in a photo, so quite a variety of animals.
The most animal activity we’ve seen has been at one basin site, one fringe site, and one salt pond. I’m thinking that it’s related to human activity. All three of those are next to heavily populated areas. One is near a land dump, and two of them are near beaches.
Our camera setup was based on a national study that was set up at one of the basin sites that had a lot of rats. We also saw quite a few birds, and I know there were some wild dogs in the area. For my experiment, each site had cameras for a week. This one has been there for a month. I’m curious to see how those photos came out. There are also some timelapse videos, which I think will be really cool.
What other SEAS program activities have you most enjoyed?
We have a general monitoring experiment looking at different container types for mangroves. Those mangroves are all grown up now and have been out-planted. We’ve been monitoring how they’ve been doing. It’s just a short little walk down from where our nursery is, but you walk through the water. I get really excited to do those measurements, because just about every week I’m seeing something new. Last week, we saw a baby stingray, a little eagle ray that was maybe 6-8 inches wide. You just never know what you’re going to see in the mangrove nursery. I look forward to that and the field days.
What’s a typical field day for you?
It was mainly collecting my trap cameras every week. Besides repeatedly getting stuck in mangrove mud, it was awesome. I have my days in the office where I’m just sitting going through photos, but I also like getting out in the field and being more active, seeing the wildlife. I like the variety of tasks when it comes to working.
Has anything been unexpected or challenging?
Nothing has really caught me off guard. I think that’s because I’m a little bit of an older student. I’m 27, so I’ve already kind of been in the workforce and have that adjustment. But something more along the lines of appreciative is that I really like the group of people that I work with at the nursery. Dr. Grimes believes in a multi-mentor approach instead of just having one person, and I really feel that within our lab. The team is always nonjudgmental and so understanding. Even with logistical questions, like how to afford grad school, they’re so helpful. It’s really just the best team to work with.
Is there any advice you’d give to other students who are considering studying science?
I think one of my biggest hurdles, and this kind of applies throughout my life, is that I’m always nervous to apply for programs because I don’t really know what’s expected of me. But especially if you’re just starting out, nobody expects you to know everything. It’s OK to go into it blind. I had planned on signing up for the Emerging Caribbean Scientists Program my first year at the university, and I kind of scared myself out of it. The next year I was like, ‘No I’m just going to do it. I need to get a summer job, marine science is a field I want to go into, and it’ll be good exposure.’ So, I finally just pushed myself over the edge. It can be scary, but just push through and it’s going to be fine.
Do you feel like you’ve had an overall positive experience so far?
Oh, absolutely – to the point that instead of just turning in my summer research I’ve been invited back to continue working with the lab part-time during the semester. I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely, please and thank you.’
What do you like to do outside of school?
Outside of school, I like playing video games. Me and my brother play a lot of Fortnite. Painting is a hobby that was almost a career at one point. Then, I decided sending myself into debt going to private art school was not the greatest move and maybe science is a better investment in my time. But I still do a lot of painting when I have time outside of the semester. I normally like acrylic, but I’ve begun to dabble in watercolor which has been fun and exciting and challenging all at the same time.
Have you thought about merging your interests in art and science?
One of the grad students at the lab has been trying to work with a local high school to create a mangrove mural. She’s asked me to be part of that, so I think we’re going to start working on it in November. It’s nice to be able to connect the interests.
If you didn’t grow up on St. Thomas, do you think you’d still be interested in marine science?
I think I’ve had more exposure to the marine environment growing up in the Virgin Islands. A lot of my friends back home are also in the marine field, but they’re coming from the middle of the U.S., like Oklahoma and Indiana. So, I think I’d definitely still be interested, but I don’t know if I would have been able to seize opportunities like I can now.
Do you hope to stay on the islands after you graduate?
I do. My current plan is to go get my master’s in marine science at the university as well and then potentially get my PhD somewhere else. I think eventually, I’d still move back home.
Do you have a dream career or a hope for the future?
I really would love to be a shark biologist. Shark Week really made the impact [laughs]. I realize though how much of a niche it is, and I don’t want to limit myself. I’m the type of person who can find interest in almost anything given the opportunity. Mangroves were not something I really thought about working with before, but I’ve grown such an appreciation and such a love for mangroves through this experience. So, hopefully, one day a shark biologist. But I won’t put it past myself to find another interest along the road.
Interview by Ashley Goetz, science writer and digital specialist with Maryland Sea Grant.