The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Tennessee Aquarium diversifies its scientific assets

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Jim Hill Fellow for Conservation Breelyn Bigbee holds a viewing window with a Logperch in Long Swamp Creek while conducting fieldwork in search of Bridled Darters near Jasper, Georgia.Jim Hill Fellow for Conservation Breelyn Bigbee holds a viewing window with a logperch in Long Swamp Creek while conducting fieldwork in search of bridled darters near Jasper, Georgia. Tennessee Aquarium

Tennessee Aquarium fellowships bring minorities into the science space

CHATTANOOGA Never let it be said that all summer jobs are created equal.

Squatting on his heels to dangle the flexible hose of an environmental DNA pump into a briskly flowing North Georgia stream, the last few weeks have been anything but ordinary for Spencer Trimpe. With the pump’s droning motor steadily collecting a sample of water to filter out genetic traces of the stream’s inhabitants, he doesn’t bother holding back a smile.

A lanky junior biology major from Thomas More University, Trimpe is one of two students selected as part of the Tennessee Aquarium’s George Benz Aquatic Ecology Fellowship. Instead of manning a cash register or waiting tables this summer, he’s assisting freshwater scientists from the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute with a variety of research projects.

“This is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had,” Trimpe says. “It’s a great opportunity to gain experience with all the amazing conservationists who work here and to get outside and see what’s in this stream.”

Today’s “office” — such as it is — is Long Swamp Creek, an unassuming waterway flowing through Jasper, Georgia, about 50 miles north of Atlanta.

Trimpe and a team of freshwater scientists, graduate students and other Aquarium fellows are methodically working their way along the stream searching for genetic traces or — even better — collectable adult Etowah bridled darters, a reclusive species found in this river system and nowhere else on Earth.

In addition to looking for genetic evidence of Etowah bridled darters, the team is taking a more active approach to finding their quarry. Camera cases, buckets and floating seine nets line the stream banks, and almost every member of the team is wearing a wetsuit, facemask and snorkel. In fact, the majority of the crew’s time is spent sprawled, face down in the water, army crawling over submerged boulders and through riffles on the lookout for quicksilver flashes of brown and gold.

Trimpe is joined for the day by two other Aquarium fellows: Ethan Dodson, a senior fisheries and wildlife biology student from Arkansas Tech University, and Breelyn Bigbee, a wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture major from Mississippi State University.

Dodson is this summer’s second George Benz fellow. Bigbee is one of seven applicants selected for the Aquarium’s 11-week Jim Hill Diversity Fellowship, a second paid program designed to provide opportunities for minority college students pursuing a science or education degree. 

Jim Hill selectees spend their summer filling specific, specialized roles at the Aquarium, from conservation and husbandry to education and operations.

The fellowship is named for the Aquarium’s second president and first person of color to serve as head of a zoo or aquarium in America. George Benz was the Aquarium’s first chief research scientist and the founder of the research arm of the Aquarium that eventually was renamed the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.

The benefits of these programs are numerous and flow in both directions, says Mara-Lynne Payne, the Aquarium’s senior manager of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“When we speak of inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards, these types of fellowship programs give us the greatest opportunities to do that,” Payne says. “The Jim Hill Diversity Fellowship program, in particular, allows us to recruit and connect with students who have been historically underrepresented in the conservation science, animal care and science education fields.

“We need diverse perspectives and diverse representation in order to make the greatest impact.”

This summer, Trimpe, Bigbee and Dodson are all working under the watchful eyes — and are subjected to the frequent, often-groan-inducing fish jokes — of Aquatic Conservation Biologist Dr. Bernie Kuhajda and Recovery Biologist Shawna Fix. 

In addition to gaining valuable insights into the work of freshwater scientists, the students augment the Aquarium’s research capabilities and further its mission to better understand and protect Southeastern aquatic life, Kuhajda says. 

“We literally could not complete many of the grant-funded projects we’re working on without help from our fellows,” he says. “They get all these different experiences of what it means to be a fish biologist, particularly a fish conservation biologist. Hopefully, that excites them to go on to become freshwater scientists.”

In a kind of generational passing of the scientific torch, two past Aquarium fellows were part of the day’s search for Etowah bridled darters: David Pounders (George Benz fellow) and Mason Strickland (Jim Hill fellow). Pounders and Strickland worked alongside Kuhajda and Fix in the summer of 2021 and are now pursuing graduate studies at the University of West Alabama.

Strickland was introduced to the bridled darter during her tenure as a Jim Hill fellow in 2021. Earlier that year, scientists determined that, rather than a single species, the bridled darter actually comprised two species, one living in the Conasauga River and a second, genetically distinct, population residing in the Etowah River.

Further dividing the already constrained range of the bridled darter between two populations spurred the Aquarium and its partners to re-evaluate the distribution and health of both species. Genetic sampling and population assessments such as those in Long Swamp Creek will be vital to the determination of whether either — or both — fish now warrant listing as endangered.

When she began her graduate studies this year, Strickland was able to carry on the work she started with the Etowah bridled darter at the Aquarium under her advisor, Dr. Mike Sandell, a zoology professor and coordinator of the university’s conservation programs. 

“He was working on this project in his lab for the genetic portion, so I was able to pick it up as my thesis,” Strickland says.

But interest in the bridled darter wasn’t her only takeaway from the time she spent as an Aquarium fellow.

“I love working with Bernie and Shawna. They’ve been huge mentors in the field for me,” she says. “They’re why I wanted to get into his work and why I got so lucky to go to grad school to work with a fish that I’m really passionate about.”

Freshwater science is a field in which success or progress may be years or decades over the horizon. Programs such as the Jim Hill and George Benz fellowships exist to connect field researchers with up-and-coming students like Trimpe, Dodson and Bigbee, who may someday carry their work forward.

“Science is a relay race,” Kuhajda says. “It can take decades and decades to recover some streams that have become really degraded or to pull a species back from the brink of extinction. You just have to make a long-term commitment.” 

“There is a mountain of work to do out there, but we’re chipping away at it and making pretty good progress with all the wonderful fellows we have and all the graduate students we collaborate with.”

The Jim Hill Fellowship and George Benz Fellowship are offered every summer. Applications for the program will next be accepted in spring of 2023.

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