Sea of Opportunity

Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Department of Biology offers students the chance to study marine life in Costa Rica.
Aug 5, 2019
Heather Herron
Jeffrey Crane & provided

Lindsay McKenna was in high school when she first became interested in marine life, but she thought she’d need to leave Fort Wayne to pursue her education. 

“I think I was like every other kid, you know. I wanted to be a dolphin trainer and I loved the beach,” she says. “I would go two or three times a year with my family on vacation, so I would get a taste of it here and there. But I never thought it was something I could actually study or go into.”

After spending two years at Ball State, she learned about the exceptional biology program at Purdue University Fort Wayne and decided to transfer.

“Once I found out about the opportunities at Purdue Fort Wayne, I was sold,” recalls McKenna.

Those opportunities wouldn’t be possible without Dr. Frank Paladino, a professor and the chairman of the biology department. His tenure stretches 35 years, he has published more than 120 papers in the top journals in the world and provides invaluable experiences for his students.

“Most people would say, ‘Hey, Fort Wayne? That’s not exactly a hotbed for marine biology,’ but we have so much to offer,’ says Paladino. “One of the things we are excited about is a marine station in Costa Rica that’s owned by Leatherback Trust, of which I’m the president. I take my class for an intensive 10-day field lab.”

That experience can be life-changing for students like McKenna, who said she vividly remembers the exact moment she knew this was the career she wanted.

“I remember sitting on the beach at 3 a.m. watching a turtle’s nest because I had volunteered to count the eggs. I was lying right behind the turtle with a counter and watching the eggs drop. After that, I said to myself, ‘Yep, I want to study this,’” she says. 

She’s one of more than 50 graduate students who have worked with Paladino on various projects, mostly involving turtles and crocodiles. For example, they catch and tag sea turtles so they can follow them and watch them as they grow. They also learn how the marine ecosystem affects our food supply.

“In Costa Rica, they do a lot of snorkeling, learning about fish and the rocky intertidal zone, as well as identifying all sorts of marine organisms along the shoreline,” explains Paladino. “They go on an estuary tour to see all the different organisms and habitats of an estuary, which is one of the most endangered, but also one of the most important, habitats. They’re important because in those mangrove estuaries, most of the large fish that we like to eat – tuna and so on – their juveniles spend their infancy and early years in the protection of the mangrove estuary. Then when they get bigger, they move out into the ocean and we catch them to eat them.”

McKenna has enjoyed the outreach and educational opportunities she has had in Costa Rica, where she helped teach high school students who visit the marine station and trained local fisherman so they can work as conservation guides. 

Most exciting, though, is the fact that she and her research were featured in a BBC nature special titled Turtle Beach that aired in March. By placing a microphone inside a study nest, she captured sounds coming from inside the eggs; a sound that appeared to signal an imminent hatching. The vocalizations then become higher-pitched as the hatchlings start to wriggle their way out. 

“One theory is that it could possibly be a signal to synchronize hatching because there are benefits if they all hatch at the same time,” says McKenna in the BBC video. “It actually requires less energy for them to get out of the nest.”

While still focusing on research, McKenna returned to Purdue Fort Wayne to become an academic advisor. She hopes to one day become a professor in the biology department.

She and Paladino agree that the opportunities are endless for those who want to pursue a career in the field.

“I think we’re one of the best kept secrets here in Fort Wayne,” Paladino says proudly. “Our students are very successful. We graduate about 60 biology majors every year and out of that, at least half of them go to graduate or professional schools. That’s a very good ratio and I think it speaks well to our undergraduate program.” 

Purdue University Fort Wayne Department of Biology

Address: 2101 E. Coliseum Blvd. Fort Wayne, Indiana 46805

Phone: (260) 481-6305

Website: pfw.edu

Email: biology@pfw.edu

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