The Turtle Whisperer
Four years of GIS Lab experience and a fantastic internship in Hawaii helped Olivia Hughes ’15 find her unique career path in the marine sciences.
Some people are lucky enough to know exactly what career they want to pursue, even before they get to college. Others can see the big picture about the future, and the education and opportunities they find in college help them narrow the focus.
That’s been the case for Olivia Hughes ’15, a biology major and chemistry minor who’s now working in Hawaii as a marine turtle stranding associate with the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, part of the University of Hawaii and a project begun by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Every day is different,” she says. “But a lot of what we do is respond to calls from the public if they see a sick or stranded sea turtle. We’ll respond on site, assess if there’s something wrong with it, and make the best decision about how to rehabilitate the turtle.” She also has assisted veterinarians during surgeries on wounded turtles and cared for them until they’re healthy enough to return to the wild, as well as participated in ongoing tagging efforts to better track the elusive animals.
The daughter of an environmental scientist, Hughes knew she wanted to pursue a career in the marine sciences, though in what specifically wasn’t immediately clear. She loved her marine science classes with Martin Connaughton, associate professor of biology and co-chair of the Department of Biology—and participated in the Chesapeake Semester.
“I wasn’t set on being a marine turtle biologist, but I really liked it when I was here last summer, so it kind of made my path,” Hughes says. Last summer was the summer before her senior year, when she landed an internship with NOAA’s Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center in Honolulu, where she helped analyze how energy moves through the environment as it pertains to foods that sea turtles like to eat. The College’s Center for Career Development helped her find the internship, as well as earn funds from the Nina Houghton Internship Fund to help pay for it.
The internship provided the foundational research for her Senior Capstone project, a thesis that Jennie Carr, assistant professor of biology, helped her develop. And, Hughes liked the work and the people so much that over the winter break of her senior year, she returned to Honolulu to volunteer her GIS mapping skills—earned as a journeyman leader at the College’s GIS Lab—on a separate sea turtle project.
She stayed in touch with her supervisor, and when a position opened up for a marine turtle biological stranding associate, she applied for it, with letters of recommendation from Connaughton and Stew Bruce, who runs the GIS Lab and for whom Hughes had worked since her freshman year.
Hughes moved to Hawaii and the new job just three months after graduating, cum laude, from Washington College. Ultimately, she wants to pursue a graduate degree so she can advance in the field. “But I am loving the experience that I’m getting here. It’s a really good learning atmosphere, and the opportunity to learn from all the different people in the program who do have advanced degrees will help me decide what I want to study in the future.”
Hughes says the support from WAC’s biology faculty and career center were key. Likewise, her mother the environmental scientist advised her to gain as much GIS experience as she could, and Hughes says her four years under Bruce’s wing in the College’s GIS Lab gave her a deeper set of skills that are increasingly desirable in the environmental science fields.
“I think the GIS experience was very important to getting me here. For students graduating now, having that GIS experience and understanding how to work the software is really important,” she says. “It’s so much easier to communicate information to the public visually than it is for them to read a scientific paper.”