Student Spotlight: Ashley Dawdy
Where are you from, and what year in school are you/what is your anticipated graduation date?
I am from Atlanta, Georgia, and I will be graduating in May 2019 with a biological science major and chemistry minor with honors and honors in the major.
How did you learn about the research opportunities that you ended up pursuing?
I started out as a field volunteer with professor Dean Grubbs’ lab the summer after my freshman year at FSU. I helped for a week with part of an annual coastal shark survey in the Big Bend. After that, I remained an active volunteer in the lab, going on as many monthly shark surveys out of the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab as possible. Eventually this turned into a Directed Individual Study position. Once I gained more experience, I wanted to explore new research questions and began an Honors in the Major thesis.
My thesis involves tracking bonnetheads and bull sharks using active and passive acoustic telemetry methods. Active tracking consists of tagging an animal with a transmitter and following its signals by boat to collect movement data, while passive tracking consists of tagging an animal and collecting its movement data from fixed receivers on the sea floor. I am looking at how tidal and diel cycles affect sharks’ movement patterns and spatial use. I also hope to compare the effectiveness of the two different tracking methodologies.
What on-campus resources/departments or offices helped you prepare both on an academic level and in the application process?
The faculty and graduate students in the Department of Biological Science have helped immensely in my academic preparation for this project. I have taken a wide array of courses from many faculty members and each of them has taught me to think and apply myself in a new way.
My lab group has taught me almost everything I know about how to successfully conduct field work. The American Academy of Underwater Scientific Diving program has greatly expanded my skill set both above and below water, and I now use scientific diving to collect my own data from passive tracking receivers. The Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement has been an immense help in terms of learning about the research process through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. They also helped fund my honors thesis through an FSU IDEA grant, which helped me buy the transmitters for the active acoustic tracking.
What aspect of the program you are a part of you do you find most exciting?
The most exciting thing is how many new things I have learned how to do. I have gotten days and days of field experience and learned how to do things I never would have expected to as an undergraduate. For example, I never thought I would be performing surgeries to implant transmitters into sharks or living on a small boat for days at a time. I found myself working on a project that I am truly passionate about and that feels so rewarding.
After this opportunity, what do you plan on doing or working on?
After graduation, I will stay for the summer for one last field season. I plan to continue my tracking project and hopefully publish the work in an academic journal. I will take the rest of that year off to work and apply to graduate school for the following fall. I want to pursue a master’s in marine biology and conduct behavioral ecology research, although I haven’t decided where yet.
What brought you to FSU?
I was interested in studying marine biology and was particularly interested in sharks and rays after my years of volunteering at the Georgia Aquarium. I was able to tour the main campus and marine lab, both of which blew me away. The sense of community I immediately felt on the FSU campus was amazing and everyone I encountered was very friendly. The programs sounded challenging and there seemed to be a lot of opportunities for unique upper-level courses and research. After seeing the marine lab and learning about the research going on there, my mind was made up.
What inspired you to choose your major, or more specific research?
I became a scuba diver in 2011 and was immediately captivated with the underwater world. I wanted to learn about every part of it that I could. I had always been interested in working with animals, so I started volunteering at the Georgia Aquarium in high school. I enjoyed all the areas I worked in, but my favorite things to teach guests about were the sharks and rays we had on exhibit. They were all so unique and some even elusive. It fascinated me that whale sharks are the biggest fish alive today, yet we know little about them in comparison to other species.
Are there any faculty or staff that have helped or inspired you?
The work going on in Grubbs’ lab was ultimately the reason I chose to come to FSU. He has been so helpful and accessible, regardless of how much he works and travels. His high expectations and faith in my abilities have pushed me to take on a rather challenging thesis project, and I am glad I did. His support and guidance have helped me in securing several scholarships and grants as well.
Graduate students (and lab mates) Cheston Peterson and Bryan Keller have been crucial mentors to me through this entire process. We completed the active tracking project together, which consisted of days at a time spent living on a boat. They have also helped me learn how to use new programs for data analysis, as well as giving guidance through the writing process. Peterson primarily trained me in the field over the past three years, teaching me almost everything I know about long lining, gill netting and being ready to handle any unforeseen circumstance that may come our way.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing schoolwork or research?
Aside from school work, I really enjoy scuba diving recreationally. I am a diving safety officer for Seminole SCUBA Club. I also like traveling, seeing live music, exploring the outdoors and cooking. I love taking care of my pets, including fish, my hedgehog, Panini, and my leopard gecko, Solaire.
Although you might miss FSU, what are you looking forward to in your post-grad life?
I am looking forward to finding new opportunities. I love adventure and although not having a definite plan can be stressful, it is exciting.