Who would’ve thought that a girl from cold, northern Minnesota, far from any body of salt-water and who had never even stepped foot into the ocean would decide to choose marine biology as a future career field? But here I am!
I went into my time as an undergrad as a first generation college student, knowing absolutely nothing about how the college system worked. I never even toured U of I before I got to campus for orientation. So, to be where I am today makes me incredibly grateful.
I started out at Illinois studying environmental sustainability because the earth is the one thing I knew I loved. Over time, I added another major and minor to push me towards my personal goals of working as a marine biologist (preferably in a Spanish-speaking, developing nation, but I’d be satisfied anywhere).
I did not realize my passion for ocean conservation until my sophomore year of college when I took an oceanography course. It was like a candle to a flame! I immediately had a drive to pursue this field, but since Illinois doesn’t offer a degree specifically in marine biology, I took it upon myself to seek out those research opportunities.
So, I got my open-water scuba certification in the frigid April waters, and I hopped on a plane for Thailand that summer. My internship in Thailand taught me how to conduct underwater dive surveys. From there, I found that I really loved speaking another language, so I bumped my Spanish minor up to a double major and took off for Granada, Spain. This study abroad trip gave me the chance to advance my bilingualism as well as granted me opportunities to travel and experience other European cultures.
The itch to learn more about our oceans then drove me to a "not-so-traditional" study abroad program with School for Field Studies (SFS) in the Turks and Caicos Islands. With SFS, I furthered my underwater research skills and learned a variety of marine management techniques. I dove into nitty-gritty research and used my newfound knowledge to write a senior capstone project highlighting the impacts of high sea surface temperatures on coral reefs from the most recent global bleaching event in the TCI. Consequently, this project transformed into a published paper with the journal SN Applied Sciences, as well as a conference presentation in the Dominican Republic for the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.
Somehow, by keeping up my time management skills and leaning on others for support, I managed to graduate on time! But I would not be where I am today without the help of my amazing advisor/co-author, Dr. Justin Cory Pettijohn.
For me, I did not go into college with a plan, but once I found what I was passionate about I did not let anything stand in the way. I took chances, trusted my gut instinct, and let fate lead me. I could have transferred to a school with a program in marine biology, but Illinois gave me the flexibility to focus on a range of studies which broadened me and helped to make me a more competitive candidate on the job market. Additionally, U of I also gave me the support, both financially and mentally, to push me towards my dream.
My advice? If you’re thinking about attending the U of I, take the leap! I sure did. I can guarantee your time here will not be anything less than extraordinary.
Interested in learning more about Abby's research? Read about it via the U of I News Bureau.