ENMU Graduate Student Focuses on Turtle Research with NM WRRI Grant

Laramie Brook Mahan checking the status of turtle traps in the Pecos River after a flash flood in Texas in 2021.
Laramie Brook Mahan checking the status of turtle traps in the Pecos River after a flash flood in Texas in 2021.

ENMU Graduate Student Focuses on Turtle Research with NM WRRI Grant

Laramie Brook Mahan's interest in the potential impact that environmental changes could have on freshwater turtle populations in the Pecos River sparked her years-long involvement in a research project focused on the topic.

laramie mahan taking measurements 1
Laramie taking standard measurements (Carapace Length pictured) of Pseudemys gorzugi using tree calipers.

The project was funded by a Student Water Research Grant from the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) and guided by Dr. Ivana Mali, associate professor of wildlife biology at Eastern New Mexico University.

Laramie received a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences from ENMU in spring 2020 and is pursuing a master's degree in biology at ENMU.

She details her journey to learn more about the Rio Grande Cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi).

Tell us about your research.

I have been conducting research on turtles under Dr. Ivana Mali since 2019. I wanted to start getting hands-on experience with research after I took Dr. Mali's herpetology class, so I approached her about work opportunities. With that, I started out working for her through the STEM program, and my first project was to analyze data in the statistical program R on the Rio Grande Cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi). Then, when the spring semester ended, I went turtle trapping with Dr. Mali's lab for the first time and immediately thought of getting a master's degree at ENMU. 

When I graduated with my bachelor's, I immediately jumped into fieldwork for my thesis project. My project is the "Current detectability and occurrence of the Rio Grande Cooter on the Pecos River." For my project, I have conducted freshwater turtles surveys at 32 sites on the Pecos River between New Mexico and Texas and collected data on the environmental parameters/habitat characteristics of the sites (i.e., conductivity [salinity], landscape condition, vegetation, turbidity, etc.).

Now that all of my data is collected, I am utilizing a statistical occupancy model in R to figure out which of these parameters I recorded are related to the presence or absence of the turtles.

My thesis project is probably the most exciting and challenging obstacle I have been working through. It has really opened my eyes to how to be a better biologist and researcher. I really enjoy the mix between fieldwork and statistics work; now, I am focusing on getting myself to enjoy the writing work too.

Laramie with Dr. Ivana Mali while taking measurements of pH and conductivity in the Pecos River in 2020.
laramie mahan with dr mali in river 1

Which opportunities and learning experiences have you had from receiving the student grant?

With this grant specifically, I have been able to purchase equipment for surveys and purchase a statistical modeling book that has helped me learn new things for the study I am doing. I also was able to present my research at two conferences last semester and will be presenting at another in February.

What does receiving the grant mean to you?

I had never applied for a grant before this one, so receiving the award was very exciting. I am very passionate about my project and really want to share it with others, and the grant funding really helps it get pushed recognized. Prior to my job with Dr. Mali and grad school, I hardly knew anything about the scientific research community, so I have been extremely grateful to learn as much as I have in the past few years.

laramie mahan with snake 1
Laramie with the first rat snake (Pantherophis emoryi) she ever caught. She captured the snake while it was swimming across the Black River in 2019.

What do you hope to pursue as a career? What do you hope to ultimately achieve in your career?

After I get my master's degree, I plan to go to Texas State University to pursue a Ph.D. in Aquatic Resources and Integrative Biology and keep conducting research on freshwater turtles. For my long-term career, I hope to keep conducting research and learning more about statistical modeling in wildlife. Eventually, I could see myself becoming a professor and being an advisor to other students who are interested in gaining experience through fieldwork and research.

What other dreams do you have?

I really want to keep challenging myself and keep working towards being a better biologist. Prior to coming to ENMU, I never envisioned I would be pursuing this career path, and I really want to work as hard as I can to succeed in it.

Tell us about your family and background.

I was raised in Camp Verde, Arizona. I have seven siblings: three stepsisters and a half-brother on my mom/stepdad's side and two half-brothers and a half-sister on my dad's side. I am the third oldest on my mom's side but the first oldest on my dad's. My stepdad is a crew leader for Kinder Morgan/El Paso Natural Gas, my mom is a surgical dental assistant and my dad owns a concrete construction company in Arizona.

Why did you choose to attend ENMU?

I transferred early as a sophomore. I was originally going to a community college in the Texas Panhandle on a rodeo scholarship and was studying elementary education. When my first semester ended, I realized I didn't want to be an elementary teacher and that my true passion was for wildlife.

I immediately looked for wildlife programs and found ENMU. I spoke with the ENMU rodeo coach, Albert Flinn, and asked to be a part of the team. I eventually stopped rodeoing so I could focus on my turtle work.

What do you think is the best part of being a Greyhound?

Making friends that have become a great support system.

Which activities have you been involved with outside of the classroom?

I was a part of the rodeo team for about two years, and I have been a part of the ENMU Student Chapter of the Wildlife Society (TWS) since 2017 as a member, secretary and president.

With ENMU TWS, there are multiple volunteer opportunities I have done, such as helping build enclosures at Desert Willow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, helping with wildlife stations at the Dragonfly Festival at Bitter Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and many more.

I also did intramurals (dodgeball and softball) with ENMU TWS before Covid.

Laramie and Dr. Mali after they finished the final trapping session of a site in New Mexico in 2021. Laramie says,
"A flood had come in and made the banks extremely muddy, so Dr. Mali, Sierra Shoemaker and I had to
leave the truck far away while we carry soaking wet traps up a hill."

laramie mahan with dr mali 1

Where is your favorite place on the ENMU campus?

Roosevelt Hall is my favorite place on campus. I have spent most of my time at ENMU in that building, whether it was going to class, working in the natural history museum, organizing the traps in the storage room, working in my office upstairs or holding ENMU TWS club meetings as an undergrad.

Which professors have helped mentor you during your time at ENMU?

Almost every professor in the Department of Biology has helped mentor me at least once throughout my time at ENMU. I am grateful that the department is tight-knit, and there is always someone to go to. However, the professors I have bugged the most are Dr. Mali, Dr. Kenwyn Cradock, and Dr. Darren Pollock. Dr. Mali, as my advisor, has helped me in too many ways to count, and Dr. Cradock and Dr. Pollock have been extremely helpful in mentoring me while in graduate school.

Which class has stood out to you the most?

Herpetology taught by Dr. Mali was by far was my favorite class. Being in that class not only got me more excited about the wildlife degree but made me extremely interested in reptiles.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in your field of study?

I would tell students that wildlife and biology degrees don't come easy. That if you are really passionate about this field, you should be ready to put in the work to succeed. Put in the work and ask a lot of questions. You will learn so much more than you ever thought possible. My education so far has been very challenging at times but extremely rewarding, and I couldn't imagine being in another field.

What are your hobbies?

Graduate school is my hobby! Honestly, graduate school work does take up most of my time. Whenever I get a spare moment, I do like beading and making keychains and earrings. I also like to take my dog out and go explore something outside.

Photo of Pseudemys goruzgi in the Black River, New Mexico, 2021.
laramie mahan turtle 1