Freshman Emily Pickering will be researching lionfish in the Bahamas this summer — and blogging about it.

Emily Pickering
Emily Pickering

To read about Emily Pickering’s research and day-to-day experiences in the Bahamas, read her blog, A Chronicle of the Invasion.

When you consider Emily Pickering’s lifelong passion for marine biology —childhood trips to Newport to see Keiko the whale; convincing her family, year after year, to see Orcas in the wild off Vancouver Island; becoming SCUBA-certified at age 11 and having 95 dives under her belt by age 19 — it’s unsurprising that she’ll soon count an upcoming research trip to the Bahamas with coral-reef fish expert Mark Hixon among her experiences.

Pickering, a University Honors College student and biology major, is the first freshman ever to accompany Hixon and his group to tiny Lee Stocking Island, where they will spend much of their summer underwater surveying the invasive lionfish — a Pacific species that was introduced into the Atlantic, where it is undergoing a population explosion and rapidly consuming native fishes on coral reefs.

“As a long-time SCUBA diver, Emily is extremely enthusiastic to apply her underwater skills to studying coral reefs,” says Hixon.

Pickering will be title to the Bahamas with grant money from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which funds undergraduate research. “I was ecstatic when I got the grant,” Pickering says. “Writing it was an amazing experience. I felt so proud of the work I’d done.”

The first time Pickering heard about Hixon’s research at a lecture for incoming Honors students, she thought, “Wow, that could be me.” The fact that she heard about it from another undergraduate, Megan Cook, who had accompanied Hixon to Lee Stocking Island the year before, made working for a world-class researcher seem like a possibility.

From there, it was all about the legwork.

Pickering contacted Cook and asked for her advice. She spoke with biochemistry professor and HHMI director Kevin Ahern, who mentored her throughout the grant process and gave her confidence that she had something to offer Hixon — despite her lack of lab experience and freshman status. And most importantly, Pickering contacted Hixon on her own.

“It was a little intimidating to approach Mark Hixon and say, ‘Hey, I want to work for you,’ but he quickly responded to my calls, and before I knew it, I was in his office talking about his work and being a part of his research team,” says Pickering. Hixon sent Pickering to graduate zoology student Mark Albins, who helped her with the HHMI grant proposal.

“I wrote my version of the proposal and sent it to Mark (Albins). It came back smothered in red ink. But it didn’t matter — I learned so much from the process and from the people I talked to that actually getting the grant almost seemed like an added bonus. It felt good to produce something I had put everything into and that I knew was my best work,”

During her three months on Lee Stocking Island, Pickering will be spending her days helping Albins survey lionfish and with his research on population dynamics. In the free time she has, Pickering will run her own experiments — she’ll be studying lionfish prey preference and digestion.

She will also be blogging about her experiences in the Bahamas, so that readers and students get an idea of what day-to-day life at a research station is like.

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