Crossing the globe to build a career in conservation
By Steven Powell, email@example.com, 803-777-1923
Sarah Grasty has worked with great white sharks in South Africa, poison oak at a site integral to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Brazilian pepper in the Everglades, and banded killifish from lake and river basins along the East Coast.
The geography is all over the map, and the species are all over the globe. To acquire and hone the tools for a career in conservation, Grasty has trod a broad landscape in four years at USC.
Her love of conservation found a rigorous academic outlet at the university, where the Gurnee, Ill., native came in 2008, originally for the nationally recognized marine science program. But when USC started a new major in environmental science two years later, Grasty was hooked.
“What I really want to do is conservation work,” she said. “Although I've kept a minor in marine science, I graduated with a major in environmental science.”
Her classwork in marine science led to research in the laboratory, which broadened her interest in preserving and restoring nature.
She worked with fish specimens in biology and marine science professor Joseph Quattro’s lab.
“I found that genetics is a really strong tool for preservation,” she said. “We were working with fish from river basins throughout North and South Carolina and with tuna from the Gulf. When it comes to convincing people that a population needs to be protected, genetics is pretty hard to refute,” Grasty said.
Quattro studies the genetic diversity within populations of fish and other aquatic animals. Grasty extracted DNA from the animals’ cells and compared proteins biosynthesized from that genetic code across species and subspecies.
“You can show that a population is separate genetically, and that we should protect it to preserve that genetic distinctiveness,” Grasty said.
Her successful work in the lab gave her the confidence to seek out opportunities in the field.
Connecting with the Student Conservation Association, Grasty arranged for an alternative spring break in March 2012, working in a remote park in the heart of the Florida Everglades. She worked with some 30 other students from across the nation to complete a series of conservation projects over the course of the week.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “I wanted to do something worthwhile with my break, and I did, and I learned a lot while I was there.”
One project involved cleaning up a once-top-secret Nike missile site, which housed missiles pointed at Cuba in the '60s and '70s.
“We're coming up on the 50-year anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, and they're trying to restore it, make it look like it was back then,” she said.
Much of the work involved removing invasive and noxious plant species, such as poison ivy, poison oak and Brazilian pepper.
When it comes to removing invasive plants from ecosystems – in a sense, preventing nature from progressing “naturally” after a disturbance – Grasty was struck by the words of one of the park rangers there. “He said that we couldn't be entirely sure that what we're doing is the best approach – we might have a different approach in the future – but what we're doing is the best we know how to do right now.”
The variety of other participants on the trip provided a genuine exchange of ideas about conservation.
“Hearing everyone's views was really a good experience,” she said. “There was a pre-med student, an engineer, an astronomy major, lots of different viewpoints. But it was great to go around and have everyone voice their opinion. Even when I didn't agree with what they had to say about conservation, it was really helpful to see the different interpretations that everyone had.”
Of all her experiences while matriculating at USC, it was an internship in South Africa between her junior and senior years that might have made the most lasting impression.
Working at the Oceans Research facility in Mossel Bay, about 250 miles east of Cape Town, Grasty used a Magellan Scholar grant from USC to collaborate with a graduate student from Nelson Mandela University on a great white sharks research project.
“One of the problems with understanding great white shark populations, and whether they might need protection, is that it's hard to follow individuals over time,” Grasty said.
“Getting them out of the water and tagging is time-consuming and expensive. We're doing what's called “geomorphic morphometrics” – we look at photos of just the shark fins as they come out of the water and try to identify individuals.”
By selecting landmarks such as spots or stippling in the photos of exposed fins, Grasty worked to refine a computer algorithm that would correctly identify individual sharks, even as they aged.
“The main difficulty I had was in the angle of the picture,” she said. “The photographs need to be flat for the identification to be most reliable.”
Grasty won first place in her division when she presented her research at USC’s Discovery Day, the annual spring presentation of undergraduate research.
But winning a blue ribbon wasn't the most memorable part of her time with the sharks. After getting scuba certification in South Africa, she went on a cage dive to get closer to her subjects.
“It was amazing,” she said of the dive. “I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”
Since graduating from USC in May 2012,Grasty has been working in Quattro's Conservation Genetics Laboratory and will move on to a master's program at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg in the fall.
“My degree will be in biological oceanography, and we'll be working to develop a noninvasive way to sample fish species – get their abundances – in protected marine areas,” she said. “The idea is to use a towed camera to do the counts, rather than basically fishing them out.”
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