Senior’s Caribbean marine biology research prepares her for future in teaching
Centre College students aren’t strangers to hands-on research in far-away places. Two of senior Sarah Wilson’s passions are biology and interacting with people, so she jumped at the chance last year to spend the summer in the U.S. Virgin Islands, participating in tropical marine field studies.
The primary focus of the research was on the interaction between coral reef fishes and their parasites (which constitute more than half of all organisms on coral reefs) and how these interactions are influenced by climate change and other human activities, and the role of parasites in marine food webs.
Since middle school, Wilson’s favorite subject has been biology, which is why she chose it as her major at Centre. (She’s a math minor.)
“I love learning about people,” she says. “That’s why I enjoy biology so much; biology is the study of life.”
In the Virgin Islands, Wilson studied small life: that of coral reef fishes and parasites. The base of operations for her team’s research was the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS), located on Lameshure Bay, St. John. St. John is regarded as the jewel of the Virgin Islands because most of the island is a U.S. National Park.
There was also a Centre connection in the tropics: Wilson had the opportunity to reunite and work with the team’s lead researcher, Dr. Paul Sikkel, former Centre biology professor.
During her field studies, Wilson’s job was to help in the collection and maintenance of small isopod crustaceans, known as gnathiids. These creatures are parasites and can be found on the scales and gills of many types of fish. They’re the marine equivalent of ticks and suck blood from their fish hosts and then return to the ocean floor.
Because these parasites are most active at night and at dawn, the team must be in the water at these times, giving them the opportunity to witness creatures that even few scientists ever see.
And this was physically demanding: “We would catch fish—I wasn’t very good at this—to place in cages out on the reef,” Wilson says.
Then the group collected the cages of fish, which had gnathiids on them, late at night, around 10 p.m., or early in the morning, around 5 a.m. In the morning hours, she counted and cleaned the colonies of gnathiids.
During her time there, Wilson also had the opportunity to work with student researchers from other schools, in addition to scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, Fla. She also worked with Dr. Nico Smit, the world authority on gnathiid isopod taxonomy, who flew to the Virgin Islands from his native South Africa to participate in the research.
“I find biology so rewarding because as I learn about a symbiotic relationship between organisms or the photosynthetic reactions in a plant. For example, I learn more about our world and who I really am,” Wilson says.
And she plans to take this passion for learning to a graduate school program in biology education and then to her own classroom, where she hopes to teach high school students.
“This allows me to combine two of my favorite things, biology and interactions with people,” Wilson says. “I also feel that the current public education system is failing students, especially in the subjects of science and math. By becoming a high school teacher, I won’t be able to change the entire system, but I could help a few people who need it most.”
Wilson says her hands-on island research allows her to improve her problem-solving skills, while increasing her endurance.
“Completing this research helps me to understand how demanding, yet rewarding, the field of biology is,” she explains. “It helped me learn the type of questions that are asked, how experiments are designed and how the results are maintained and analyzed. These skills and understandings act as an important foundation for graduate school.”
During her summer research, Wilson also raised gnathiids for genetic studies in order to prepare for her independent study that she completed in the fall of 2010 with Dr. Chris Barton, Centre professor of biology. Using gnathiids Sikkel collected from different islands in the Virgin Islands and around the Caribbean, Wilson, Barton and Wilson’s lab partner, Jill Krier, set out to determine if there are genetic disparities between the populations of gnathiids from different islands. They plan to present their research in April at Centre’s academic symposium, called RICE (Research, Internships and Creative Endeavors).
Wilson also has a secret dream career: to work as a biologist at Sea World, while being a part-time radio D.J.
“I love music and appreciate all kinds,” she says. “I hope to live in a warm place, close to the beach on the East Coast.”
Originally from Florida, but having spent the majority of her life in the small Kentucky town of Eubank, Wilson chose Centre because it was close to home, yet has an outstanding academic reputation and a beautiful campus, equipped with state-of-the-art materials. Along with her academic research, Wilson is also involved in the Best Buddies, a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters, where college students establish friendships with people with mental and physical challenges. She’s also a member of TOMS club (designed to promote and appreciate TOMS shoes and its philanthropy), Centre Christian Fellowship and Centre Faith.