Emma Hickerson

photo of Emma Hickerson

Expedition Role: Emma Hickerson is the Research Coordinator at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. She will help to organize the biological research on the M/V Spree as well the Carolyn Chouest. She is especially interested in exploring the “hidden highways” between the banks of the sanctuary. 

On Your Career…

How did you end up doing what you do today?
When I was in college, I started working with sea turtles in a lab with Dr. David Owens. I ended up with a small grant from the National Science Foundation to go to Costa Rica for three months to work on a sea turtle project. Around the same time, a graduate student approached me to help out on a fish survey project at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS). After I entered graduate school myself, I started a sea turtle project of my own at the FGBNMS. While I was doing my research, the person in the research coordinator’s position left, and I started volunteering my time to help out. This led to a few hours a week of paid time, then regular part-time work, then full-time work. I am now a full-time government employee as research coordinator of the FGBNMS.

Who or what inspired you to pursue this career?
I’ve always been a naturalist in some way or another. My mother and father exposed me to the natural environment through camping and hiking. In college, Dr. David Owens encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree. And Dr. Steve Gittings provided me with many opportunities through my interaction with the FGBNMS.

How and where do you conduct your work?
My office is in Galveston, Texas. I also occasionally work out of my house in Austin, Texas. I conduct field work at the FGBNMS, which is located about 115 mi (185 km) miles off the coast of Texas and Louisiana. I have also been involved in marine projects in Belize.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work?
I use scuba equipment, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), submersibles, underwater video and still cameras, underwater drills, collection bags, hammers, chisels, measuring tapes, clipboards, underwater paper, lasers (to measure fish size), underwater habitats, and reels.

What research projects are you currently involved in?
As research coordinator of the FGBNMS, I’m involved in all projects being carried out at the sanctuary. Some of these projects include manta ray and whale shark tagging, deep-water habitat characterization, coral bleaching and disease surveys, coral paleoclimatology, lobster genetics, and invasive species surveys

What have you learned so far?

  1. Mantas move between the East and West Flower Garden Banks.
  2. We have a lot more gorgonians, black coral, and sponge species in the deep-water habitats than we ever imagined.
  3. Coral disease and bleaching impacted the coral reefs of the FGBNMS in 2005.
  4. Invasive species exist at the FGBNMS.

What do you like the best about your job?
Many things: learning about new aspects of the marine world, interacting with fabulous people, teaching people about the Flower Garden Banks, using underwater photography to create interpretive products, scuba diving (and getting paid for it!), being offshore on the ships, and coming up with new projects to learn more.

What do you like the least about your job?
Wading through the hundreds of e-mails after being away from the office.

What are the most common misconceptions that people have about what you do?
That it’s all fun and no work.

Where have you traveled for your work?
I’ve traveled to Florida, California, Seattle, Vancouver, Georgia, the District of Columbia, Hawai’i, Belize, Costa Rica, Japan, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Gulf of California.

Where’s your favorite place that you’ve been to so far?
Belize. I’ve been involved in very interesting research in a beautiful work environment with turquoise warm waters and abundant fish life.

What is the most incredible thing that has happened to you while conducting your work?
There are so many: learning how to pilot a submarine, actually piloting the sub in open water, witnessing the mass coral spawning, witnessing the mass sponge spawning, witnessing the mass snapper and grouper spawning (in Belize), swimming with whale sharks, manta rays, and dolphins, finding things on the reef I’ve never seen before, seeing really cool behaviors, catching and tagging sharks and turtles, and sharing the water with amazing critters.

What are some of the different career opportunities that are associated with the work that you do?
There are opportunities in marine biology, teaching, lecturing, photography, journalism, outreach, and education.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Read about a lot of different things. Get involved with something that interests you. Get outside and volunteer, but do not always expect to get paid for what you want to do. Keep your grades up. And learn a skill that is related to your interest—for example, scuba diving or birding.

On the Expedition…

What is your role on this expedition?
I have a research cruise going on at the same time, so will be coordinating activities on that cruise as well as helping direct the science taking place with the NR-1 and Argus.

What about the expedition is most exciting to you?
I’m excited about having the opportunity to explore parts of the sea floor that we have not visited before.

Why do research in the ocean in general and in the Flower Garden Banks region specifically?
In order to provide protection to the inhabitants of the ocean, we have to learn about them. The FGBNMS region harbors rich deep-water ecosystems that we are still learning about. The opportunity to find new species and document new locations is available in this region.

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from this expedition?
That there are still many new things to discover and places to explore—you just have to have the vision, get the education, and guide yourself in the right direction to be on the path to exploration and discoveries.

On Being a Kid…

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
I liked to read field guides and books about animals because I loved animals and nature. I remember one book in particular—Storm Boy by Colin Thiele. It was about a young boy and a pelican.

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?
Science. I remember going outside to learn to identify the wildflowers and trees and drawing them in my journal.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
A biologist of some kind.

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
Don’t settle for a job that you don’t enjoy or a lifestyle that you don’t enjoy. I absolutely love my job and lifestyle, but I didn’t get here right away. I didn’t start college until I was well into my 20s. This was both an advantage and a disadvantage. I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but I could have been doing it earlier if I had made the decision to go to college earlier.

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
Sylvia Earle, Lady Diana Spencer, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and my Mum.

When you are not working, what do you like to do for fun?
Spending time with my daughter—traveling, going on nature walks, bird watching, snorkeling, swimming, biking, hiking, photography, knitting, reading, drawing, beach combing... We are usually not too many steps away from the outdoors—if we aren’t smack in the middle of it!

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
If you are passionate about pursuing a dream, be prepared to make sacrifices along the way. When things don’t go just as you had planned, be flexible enough to adapt to the new road or new direction, and keep going. Always do the best you can!

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic