Alumni Spotlight: Aaron Ridall

| Thu, 05/23/24
Aaron Ridall graduated in Spring 2024 with a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology through the Department of Biological Science. Photo by Devin Bittner.
Aaron Ridall graduated in Spring 2024 with a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology through the Department of Biological Science. Photo by Devin Bittner.

Aaron Ridall graduated in Spring 2024 with a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology through Florida State University’s Department of Biological Science, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 2024, Ridall served as a teaching assistant leading experimental biology and field marine ecology. After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology from the State University of New York College at Geneseo in 2014, Ridall taught Bay Trail Middle School. In 2017, he became a science instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point before coming to FSU in 2019.

Tell us a little about your background, where you’re from and what brought you to FSU.

I grew up in Buffalo, New York, which is quite far from the ocean. However, I had the opportunity to conduct a field experiment in the Bahamas as part of a course in experimental biology at SUNY Geneseo. Although I was pursuing a degree in teaching at the time, I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to conduct coral reef research. During my second teaching job after college, I reconsidered my career ambitions. I realized I wanted to become a college professor and research marine biology or marine environmental science, leading me to FSU for my doctoral degree.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in biological science?

I’ve always excelled in biology. During freshman year of high school, I realized I had a passion for biological science as well as educating others. It always made sense for me to connect these interests by pursuing a career in teaching biology. I enjoy considering biological questions from different perspectives ranging from the observer, the organism being observed, and the organism’s environment and cohabitants. Therefore, biology is a great field of study for me.

What do you want the public to know about your research?

Microplastics are one of the most common pollutants in the environment and are potentially problematic for organisms of all sizes. Microplastics enter coastal environments through wastewater treatment plants through the washing of synthetic textiles or through road runoff from car tire abrasion. While research often evaluates the effects of pollutants on large animals, researchers have started to realize that meiofauna, known as organisms between 32 and 500 micrometers, may be of higher risk due to their small size. In my work with the St. Andrew and St. Joseph Bays Estuary Program at FSU’s Panama City campus, I evaluate levels of microplastics and how current and potential future levels of pollution affect meiofauna organisms.

What aspects of your areas of study do you find most rewarding?

I appreciate the opportunity to speak about my work and inform the public about how microplastics are generated from consumer activities while also shining a light on ways to reduce consumer waste. Talking with younger audiences about microplastics is rewarding because they know a lot about environmental pollution and are interested in how they can make a difference.

Describe your experience working as a U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School science instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

USMAPS is a one-year preparatory school for Army cadets who have applied to West Point. Our goal as USMAPS faculty members is to support students who may need an extra year to prepare for the rigors of a full-time college schedule. I provided instruction across chemistry, physics, and biology akin to FSU’s non-major science courses. I enjoyed working with students across multiple levels of baseline knowledge and watching them grow into confident young scholars and military officers.

Tell us about earning the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center grant. How did this grant aid your research?

This grant was the first award I received supporting my doctoral research. When proposing the project, “Influence of wastewater treatment plants and water input sources on size, shape, and polymer distributions of microplastics in St. Andrew Bay, Florida, USA,” I pictured myself evaluating microplastic pollution across four parts of Florida. The award committee was interested in supporting locally relevant research and was compelled by my project, which evaluated the magnitude and variation of microplastic pollution. Thanks to this grant, I was able to cover two trips to my field site located in St. Andrew Bay and some associated research costs.

In 2023, you received the Graduate Student Publication Award. Tell us about your publication, “The role of microbe-microplastic associations in marine Nematode feeding behavior,” which was published in “Environmental Pollution.”

I had the privilege of publishing multiple chapters of my dissertation during my time at FSU, and this was one of the more unique papers I’ve written. I aimed to evaluate why nematodes, which are microscopic worms that live between sediment grains, eat microplastics. I designed an experiment to examine if nematodes would preferentially consume microplastics that were coated with bacterial biofilms, based on their natural feeding behaviors, over untreated microplastics. While the nematodes showed no preference for the biofilm-coated plastics, they didn’t eat many microplastics. This suggests the microplastic polymer’s chemical structure may have provided an adverse signal to the animals.

Tell us about your involvement with FSU’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory.

FSU’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory is where my adviser, assistant research faculty Jeroen Ingels, researches. While it’s over an hour drive from Tallahassee, I love working right on the water and seeing the vibrant wildlife. The marine lab is home to multiple research boats, a seawater system, and a diverse set of research projects supported by the robust coastal and marine wildlife of northwestern Florida. The lab also aids multiple outreach programs that I’ve been lucky enough to support.

Even though you might miss FSU, what are you looking forward to now that you’ve graduated?

I’m looking forward to starting the next phase of my career. I’m excited to start my research and teaching career, establish a laboratory and research program, and start recruiting students.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students?

Determine what your dream career is and find out what qualifications you need to be a competitive applicant. If your dream career requires advanced coursework or graduate school, be sure to know exactly what level of advanced coursework is necessary, rather than immediately pursuing a degree.