Student learns from NOAA scientists during summer program

Ava De Leon is a junior studying marine affairs and public relations at the University of Miami.
By Ashley A. Williams

Ava De Leon is a junior studying marine affairs and public relations at the University of Miami.

Student learns from NOAA scientists during summer program

By Ashley A. Williams
Ava De Leon was one of only 15 students accepted into an inclusive fisheries 10-week internship offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aimed at giving diverse talent hands-on experience in marine science.

Since she was a child, Ava De Leon knew that she wanted to explore the ocean in some way. To do that, she would one day have to leave her landlocked hometown in Dallas, Texas.

“I was exposed to the ocean on family vacations to Mexico every year and it really founded my love for ocean life,” said De Leon, a junior studying marine affairs and public relations. “Dallas has great opportunities for hiking trails and a lot of open spaces but didn’t provide much marine opportunities.” 

Her passion led her to apply and be selected to participate in IN FISH!, a new program that partners the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with academic and nongovernment research institutions to offer students hands-on experience during the summer. Only 15 students from across the country were accepted into the inaugural cohort.

De Leon’s project during the program focused on analyzing fish diet data collected from Northeast U.S. waters since 1973. Her goal was to help others become more familiar with predicted shifts in predator-prey relationships. 

“The goal was to find ecosystem indicators for fishery managers to use in ecosystem-based fisheries management decisions,” said De Leon. “This was a great opportunity to learn more about myself and data analyzing—something I didn’t have much experience in.”

De Leon performed trend analyses on benthic invertebrates, fish, pelagic invertebrates, and other species in the regions of Georges Bank, Mid-Atlantic Bight, and the Gulf of Maine during the fall and spring seasons. Her data found that there were notable trends of increasing and decreasing benthic invertebrates and pelagic invertebrates.

“It was definitely a big undertaking,” said De Leon. “Though we found that there were some trends, it was really difficult to narrow down the cause in the eight-week time period that we had.”

De Leon was virtually led by mentor Sarah Gaichas, a research fishery biologist with the Ecosystem Dynamics and Assessment Branch at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Massachusetts. The 10-week paid program was conducted fully online because of the pandemic and included a two-week workshop course available for credit with an additional eight-weeks of project experience. De Leon had the chance to learn directly from professional scientists and conservationists. She was also awarded a $5,000 stipend, with tuition and course supplies also covered.

“I really enjoyed being able to connect with other like-minded students from all over the country,” said De Leon. “My mentor definitely helped me think about my future and what my future career path could look like.”

While she enjoyed learning how to analyze data and identify ecosystem indicators, De Leon noted that she finds conservation work compelling.  

“I’m not entirely sure what I want to do—I still have time—but I do know that I want to use my communications skills to advocate for conservation efforts and to raise awareness for environmental issues,” she said. “I want to instigate positive change, so I’ve considered freelance writing and graphic designing for a nonprofit organization as an area of interest.”

De Leon said she came to the University because she knew opportunities in marine science, such as her internship with NOAA, were possible.  “I was eager to start college here in Miami,” she said. “I feel like I’m in the right place, and I’m looking forward to as many opportunities as possible while I’m here.”