Alumni Success Stories - Alicia Amerson

Alumni Success Stories - Alicia Amerson

My name is Alicia Amerson I went to ENMU where I got a Bachelor's of Science in Biology and a Minor in Business. Now I work at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories Marine and Coastal Research lab in Sequim, Washington and I'm a Marine Biologist.

Explain what you do as a Marine Biologist.

The research that I'm leading is looking at a tethered balloon system, so you know those big red or white balloons that look like little alien ships for atmospheric science. We fly them at a lower altitude and putting a variety of sensors so multi-spectral sensors, which allow is to look into the water to see the water to see animals and thermal cameras so we can see heat profiles from large whales, birds, and seals. As well as the usual RGB normal cameras of like the spectrum that we can see in. All of these different sensors allow is to take different perspectives of what's happening with animal behavior. This balloon kind of gives us an idea of how animals are moving and their presence and absence. I am also working on seabird response with these devices so how seabirds are impacted by anthropogenic light or diving birds going into the water to get prey. In part of the Office of Science and Technology there is a federal agency called the, Biodiversity Interagency Working Group, and in that working group there is a task force looking at how we standardize E-DNA, Environmental DNA, we are trying to find a way to collect E-DNA and be able to process it. That is a lot of what I've been working on along with designing different technologies for collecting E-DNA, so using air DNA technologies and passive filtering to collect E-DNA in water so that's kind of how biodiversity research works, is combining all of these different science areas to kind of look at a full picture program to help understand how we can do better in our environment.

Tell us about yourself and your background.

I was born in Farmington, New Mexico and when I was 6 my family and I moved to Los Alamos. I was the first person in my family to graduate with a college degree, and my parents were really excited about that. At ENMU and growing up in New Mexico in general I rode horses, I loved horses. I did 4-H in high school and then eventually College Rodeo and was part of the ENMU Rodeo team. I still own horses but I don't rodeo anymore. I also practice and teach yoga, I took my first yoga class at ENMU and loved it and just about 10 years ago I started practicing more regularly and just fell in love with it. I then stated teaching it, I love running and being outdoors. I do a lot of outdoor activities, I think a lot about the hobbies that I have today and the things I was doing 20 years ago when I was at ENMU. It's kind of fun to look back on and I love all of the things that I have been working on outside of work.

Why did you choose to attend ENMU?

My parents thought that going to ENMU would be the safer choice for me when we were looking at schools across New Mexico. My parents were a little bit more afraid for me to go to UNM or NMSU because they're just really big campuses and then also you know there's crime and other things. So I had done rodeo my whole life and so we had gone to Eastern New Mexico quite a bit. My parents liked the feel of it so I just loved it there and I loved the campus. I loved how small it is and there were just some professors there that I really loved learning from. The simplicity of Portales and just the two-way streets. Small campus the rural areas, there isn't a lot of pretentiousness that you get in bigger schools and it's really just in the heart of New Mexico and I just really love that about our school.

Why did you choose to study science?

I ping-ponged between science and business because I've always been very interested in like entrepreneurial pursuits, but I've always you know tested stronger in science and I think the curiosity that I have just for our natural world is all the questions you have can be answered with science. I just easily fell into the science classes and the more I put into my course schedule the more I loved them and then, I look back now on my career and I'm a marine biologist, but I also am certified in project management and I have been since 2012. Project management is the business side of running anything like you're running a budget you're helping people achieve their milestones and you're scheduling things and you're talking to sponsors and you're getting funding in the door, and so all those things that you need to do as a scientist to really you know get your science across happens through really effective project management and so I'm really thankful that I took the business classes because it makes me a better scientist.

What was your favorite part about being a Greyhound?

I think one thing that's really cool about being a Greyhound, is that we are a small school but we have a lot of strong spirit and so a lot of people that I met at ENMU, we saw our Greyhound proud and we carry the green and sliver. I think it's really awesome and I also really appreciate that ENMU took to heart for women in sports to be Zia's, who doesn't want to be a Zia? I think that showing women that they can have a choice that they can be proud and that they are seen was a really key element for ENMU.

Did you earn any academic honors at ENMU?

I got an athletic honor for academics for 4.0 semester, so that was kind of cool.   

Were you involved in any activities outside of the classroom?

I helped launch the ENMU Wildlife Club while I was there and I was the first Secretary of the club. I really love that we put that club together and I think it still exists today. I loved being on the rodeo team and that was a big part of my experience and I loved all the kids and sharing experiences and traveling around together. You know flat tires and all the fun stuff that happened so that was a great experience that was really fun.

What was your favorite place on campus?

I think campus may have changed a little bit since I was there last, but there used to be a fountain in the middle of campus. It connected all of the walkways between the buildings and so you're always going to run into someone. It was just really nice because people would hang out at the fountain, I also really loved the library which has also changed since the last time I was on campus. There was so many fun study sessions and I just used to love going through all the science journals. Just meeting up with friends and getting ready for big tests especially for Dr. V's classes they're so hard it was really fun.

Which professor helped mentor you the most?

My favorite professor and the one who's made the hugest impact on my life since leaving ENMU and while I was there is Dr. Varela or Dr. V he's just an outstanding person he loves his students and he loves his science. His favorite phrases are you're killing me and it was meant to be for fun so like if your Bunsen burner is like way too high or you drop the petri dish or you overcooked your petri dish sample and autoclave just like he made mistakes fun and acceptable in science. That's like something you definitely don't get in the real world and so I just I loved that about the classes with him. His classes are so hard, they're so hard, but they make you so smart. I loved that but he just he makes science really fun and acceptable and then after school he's been this incredible reference for me so jobs getting into graduate school. Helping me when I was a teacher at one point get started so he has all these resources and  anytime I have ever emailed him he has always come back and said yes I will help you and I just am grateful for his continued friendship and mentorship over the last I guess 20 years.

What was your favorite class at ENMU?

My favorite class at ENMU was medical microbiology. It's just the best class, basically what you do is you read a bunch of scientific papers and you learn how to read them and decipher what the heck they're saying in these science papers because you look at you know Journal papers and you're like oh how do you even understand what's going on here? So you learn how to read the papers and then you're learning about all of these microbes that cause all of the worst diseases. Like dysentery and blood loss and like fluid loss and like you know you're just learning about everything because it's all about the microbes that are medically doing something to make you very sick. One of the things is like this forensic mystery medical Mysteries and so Dr. V will give you a medical mystery and you have to go and try to figure out what the patient has and those are super fun.

What other dreams do you have?

I am still thinking about getting a PhD maybe? I don't know I mean I'm kind of like all right when it's too old to get a PhD? I don't know so sometimes I like let that dream go and sometimes it comes back. And then we're in the process of adopting a baby so one day I'll be a mom so I'm really excited about that. And then I just want to keep growing this biodiversity research program at PNL and so my dream is that our laboratory is part of the National Science that's really contributing to biodiversity. So those would be the three things that I am dreaming about.

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

 The department of energy has 17 National Labs across the U.S. And I work at one of them and inside there's an internship called SULI. In the SULI internship you can work at any lab that you choose, you can pick a scientist working there that you love to work with, you can pick a topic that you're interested in, and they place you at these different Labs across the U.S. So if you're interested in staying in New Mexico you have Lionel you have Sandia so it's really amazing to have local Labs so nearby where ENMU is but also you could go up come up here to Washington to PNL or go to Oak Ridge in Tennessee so that's a really cool program. I would say anybody at ENMU and any field that wants to do a SULI internship check out the DOE, Department of Energy SULI internship. Then if you want to become a marine biologist or ecologist or biologist at large there are organizations like where you can try your hand at scientific field work so they offer people to come and volunteer and collect citizen science data on animals. There's also programs like the California Ocean Alliance hosts amazing marine biology programs with field applications. I would say learn bioinformatics be able to code learn python, be creative, start thinking about ways to combine scientific areas. There's lots and lots and lots and lots of data out there. So much data that has never been analyzed so don't feel scared to reach out to people who have data and if you have a question and you know someone has data go and grab it and just go for it. The next and most important thing if you want to be a scientist is to learn how to communicate your science so hone in on your artistic design take as many communication classes as you can, especially those focused on science communication. Learn to give an elevator pitch write a proposal clearly and concisely say your research and its impact. So why you're doing it and why it's important and then draw what you're doing say things with pictures. Science words are huge and they just can get really mixed up in them so draw things, show people what you're doing, and use all of your talents. That's what I'd say and give advice to anybody who's interested in being a marine biologist or scientist.