PIFSC Student Intern presents at International Sea Turtle Symposium

By Nicole Sarto

Rising before the sun and throwing the last of my things into my suitcase, I grabbed the cardboard tube holding my poster and stood at the curb waiting for the SuperShuttle. My companions for the half hour drive to the San Jose Airport were a quiet middle-aged man who worked at a tech sales company and a chatty older woman with arthritis. The man nodded and made affirming noises as the woman told us about the woes of having grown children that lived far away from each other, estranged grandchildren, and a son who’d spent time in the military. She was headed to the airport to catch a flight back home to Big Island, Hawaii where she lived with her daughter. We started talking about all the reasons Hawaii was better than Northern California, and it made me wonder why I had ever left. I told them that I had done an internship in Honolulu for NOAA’s Marine Turtle Assessment Program last summer, and had studied how human waste and fertilizer getting into the coastal ocean water was causing tumor outbreaks in green turtles. I was headed to Baltimore to present some of my results at the International Sea Turtle Symposium. We all agreed Hawaii was a much better destination to be flying towards than Baltimore.

At the airport I said goodbye to my new friends and hopped on my plane, suitcase and poster in hand. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief as my stress over delayed results and poster printing problems got left behind on the runway. A new eager anticipation set in as I flew across the country for the first time, awed by the tall snowy mountains surrounding Salt Lake City and baffled that the rest of the country seemed to be composed of flat, brown squares. Upon arriving in Baltimore, I ran into my friend Elena, a grad student I knew from Hopkins Marine Station, and counted it as a good omen that I would not be totally surrounded by strangers in the world of sea turtle science I was about to enter. We caught up and observed the bustle of Baltimore on our shuttle ride to the Waterfront Marriott.

Sarto at ISTS

Nicole Sarto (right) presents her poster at the 33rd International Sea Turtle Symposium.

The hotel had been temporarily converted into the epicenter of all things sea turtle. Scientists, advocates, and conservationists from all over the world had convened to present and discuss the latest turtle-related news. As an undergraduate student, I was one of the youngest scientists presenting a poster at the conference. It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but as I started talking with people and seeing their interest in the research I had done with my mentor, Kyle Van Houtan, I became more confident and stacked up some solid public speaking experience. I even had a chance to present my poster in Spanish to a researcher from Mexico! Outside of the poster presentation sessions,

I enjoyed the opportunity to meet, converse, and dine with a huge variety of people, many of whom were experts in their particular field of sea turtle research.

Regrettably, I had to leave the conference early to get back to school.. As I flew back over the flat, brown middle of the country, I reflected on what had led me to this experience. The summer internship with PIFSC was the start, but after going back to Stanford in the fall, I had stayed in touch with Dr. Van Houtan as I worked on writing a paper on our results for my senior thesis. Sometime in October he sent me an email from Samoa encouraging me to submit an abstract for the 33rd International Sea Turtle Symposium — due the next day. It was accepted a few weeks later, and my conference grant proposal a few weeks after that. But as the conference drew closer, I got to experience the scientific anxiety that comes with waiting on getting results back from a third party. Just in the nick of time, we received enough data to make a few graphs for the poster, but we are eagerly awaiting the rest. Results: TBD. Paper: in the works.

Even though my internship has ended, I feel lucky to have found a mentor through the PIFSC Student Intern Program who continues to play an active role in my academic and professional development. Landing in San Jose, I rushed off to my Digital Art class, back to the grind of daily life as a student, but this conference gave me a healthy dose of perspective: there is a whole professional world beyond college, and it’s an exciting place!

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