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Next Generation: Ellie Rothermel

December 5, 2019
E-Z Pass for Fish, with Ellie Rothermel

Name: Ellie Rothermel
Advisor: David Secor, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory

What is the focus of your research?
My research is focused on the movement ecology of striped bass and Atlantic sturgeon. Both of these species reproduce and are born in freshwater but spend a significant portion of their adult lives in the ocean. Little is known about how Atlantic sturgeon and striped bass behave as they migrate along the East Coast, so I am using acoustic telemetry to understand their seasonal patterns of movement.

How will it make a difference?
As plans move forward for the construction of a renewable wind energy farm off the coast of Maryland, it is critical to understand how this development will impact the fish that live there. Acoustic telemetry acts as a sort of “E-ZPass” system for fish that allows us to get a baseline for how endangered or commercially important species like sturgeon and striped bass utilize offshore areas. My findings can be used both to help limit impacts to these fish during wind farm construction and to evaluate changes in their behavior that might happen once wind turbines are in place.

What influenced your career path in science?
I have been captivated by swimming organisms since my early years—my first word was “fish.” I chose the scientific path so I could be a part of the discoveries that help us learn about and protect the natural environment.

Why did you choose to study with your mentor at UMCES?
I decided to pursue my master’s degree at UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory because I was fascinated by the work of my advisor, Dr. David Secor, and wanted to learn about the cutting-edge methods being used to reconstruct fish movement pathways. I was further encouraged to study here after I visited the campus and became acquainted with the supportive and friendly community working here.

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
Aside from my own research, some of my favorite memories at UMCES have taken place during our Open House events. At these events, I was able to speak to members of the community, young and old, who had so many great questions about different Chesapeake Bay fishes. Seeing kids, their parents, and their grandparents, all equally enthusiastic to talk to me about Atlantic sturgeon and how we study fish, never failed to reignite my own excitement about these captivating animals and remind me why my work is important.

Have you received a scholarship, grant, travel award or gift from a donor? What did it allow you to do and why was that important?
I received a gift from a donor that allowed me to attend a highly specialized international conference for fish telemetry research that took place in Norway. With this travel support, I was be able to interact with renowned scientists in my field from all over the world. This kind of unique experience helped spark new ideas for my own research and provided incredible networking opportunities, both of which make a big difference for an early career scientist like myself.

What are your future plans?
I may eventually pursue a Ph.D., but for now I would like to start directly using the knowledge gained through my master’s work in the field of fisheries science and management. After I graduate, I hope to obtain a position as a research technician in an academic setting or as a biologist at a government agency so I can continue doing the things I love—fieldwork, data analysis, and scientific writing—all while helping to preserve the fish species I so deeply care about.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
I tend to think that small, individual actions can do a lot to help the environment. If we all tried to reduce our impact and live a little more locally, it could lead to the kind of social changes that make for more sustainable communities. Riding your bike or carpooling to work, recycling, buying local products, switching off lights, limiting fertilizer use—all the little things add up. Of course, it’s always great idea to educate yourself in science and know where politicians stand on environmental issues. Your actions—and your vote—count!

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?
When I was a kid, I watched naturalists on TV and considered them my heroes. I never dreamed that someday I would be working on boats, studying fish, and contributing to science. When I meet kids who think those things are cool, too, I tell them that their passion can take them anywhere. Even if you don’t excel in every school subject, there is always a place for inquisitive and driven people in environmental science. It might be intimidating, but the younger generation should never be afraid to ask questions of people they admire in STEM. Mentors are important in this field and people are often more willing to offer guidance and support than you’d expect.

When do you anticipate earning your degree?
I will be completing my master’s thesis in winter 2019.