The Life Aquatic
FSU alumnus brings decades of experience to new role at alma mater
By Amy Robinson
Joel Trexler vividly remembers a family trip to the pet store that would ultimately set his future career into motion. At age 12, he was already an enthusiast of dinosaurs and snakes, but was awestruck when he came across an aquarium filled with a colorful collection of tropical fish.
I just kind of never looked back. I became completely drawn into fish and made a whole career out of it apparently,” Trexler said.
That career has spanned more than 30 years, with the majority spent at Florida International University in Miami. There, he served as a professor in the Department of Biological Science and director of the Marine Science Program, conducting research on the wetland ecosystem of the Florida Everglades that helped shape the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
Now, the FSU alumnus has returned to Florida State to serve as director of the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory in St. Teresa, Fla.
Before coming to FSU for graduate school in 1979, Trexler was studying marine science at the University of South Carolina. He envisioned becoming an ichthyologist but an ecology class inspired him to dream even bigger.
“I realized that although I was excited about fish, the ecology and the interactions of species and environment was where my excitement surrounding animals came about,” Trexler said.
In that class, he stumbled upon intriguing research by then-Florida State professor Dan Simberloff. Trexler wrote to him about FSU’s graduate school and learned Simberloff was part of a team evaluating the biology department at the University of South Carolina.
“I met professor Simberloff during his visit and seized the remarkable opportunity to study with him at Florida State. It changed my whole future direction,” Trexler said.
After completing his master’s degree in biology under Simberloff, Trexler began his doctoral work as a research assistant with newly hired FSU assistant professor, Joseph Travis.
“Joel was my first doctoral student at FSU,” said Travis, now a Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Biological Science and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“I met him when I arrived and could see he was smart, energetic and passionate about ecology. I hired him as a research assistant and he soon began studying for the doctoral degree with me.”
Making a splash
When he wasn’t working on field research or exploring Tallahassee nature, Trexler loved swimming at FSU’s outdoor pool. It was there that he met his future wife, Melanie, a biology undergraduate.
“We both swam laps and one day we wound up sharing a lane. I had forgotten my goggles and this cute guy, Joel, immediately volunteered his,” Melanie said.
When Melanie later met Trexler at Travis’ lab to return the goggles, he asked her to dinner. She happily accepted.
“I found out that after I left, everyone in the lab broke into applause because none of them had gotten a date in a very long time,” Melanie said.
Their first date sharing oysters at the original Posey’s in St. Marks was a success and the two later married. Melanie, who has spent the last 20 years as a research attorney for the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami, said the pair are delighted to return to north Florida.
“Joel’s enthusiasm for his new role as director of the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab is contagious, and I look forward to sharing this new adventure with him,” Melanie said.
Leading the lab
Trexler took the helm at the laboratory in September, succeeding long-time director Felicia Coleman. The lab serves as a base camp for field studies and is also home to the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative, which aims to restore the health of the bay’s ecosystem and oyster reef.
“The Marine Lab is a tremendous resource,” Trexler said. “Florida State has had the lab for a long time, so there’s quite a history of research and contributions and support for the local and regional community.”
Adviser-turned-colleague Travis said Trexler’s experience directing FIU’s marine science program and a leadership role in FIU’s National Science Foundation-funded Long Term Ecological Research Program, are just part of what makes him a superb choice.
“Joel is a great scientist in his own right, with expertise in coastal freshwater and marine wetlands biology and a very strong international reputation,” Travis said. “He is a positive, encouraging person. We have an excellent program that he can take to a new level.”
Trexler feels fortunate to have a job that not only continues to fulfill his childhood fascination for all things aquatic, but also fosters that passion in others.
“I hope folks are inspired to come talk to us about ways they can take advantage of the Marine Lab to further their education.”