An aspiring conservation biologist restores habitats in the Caribbean and in the Thames
As a teenager growing up in the coastal town of Ventura, Calif., Kayla Austin ’22 saw the damage invasive species can do to aquatic ecosystems. She got involved with a local removal and relocation project, then interned with an organization that monitors oceanic bacteria levels near wastewater drains in local communities.
As a first-year student at Conn, Austin decided to follow her burgeoning passion for conservation biology. She took courses with George & Carol Milne Assistant Professor of Biology Maria Rosa, who specializes in marine biology and ecology, and was soon working with Rosa to conduct research on marine ecosystem restoration.
That work has now stretched from the shores of the Thames River on campus to the mangrove forests of the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
This past summer, Austin, a Biology major with a concentration in ecology and an environmental studies minor, was one of 19 students selected as a Bessel Fellow. The program, made possible by a generous bequest from Diane Bessel ’59, is designed to bring awareness to the social, environmental and economic causes and impacts of global challenges and support students as they consider holistically sustainable solutions to these challenges.
As part of the fellowship, Austin traveled with Rosa to Tortola, BVI, to work with the Unite BVI Foundation on a project to restore the mangrove habitats destroyed during Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
“While on the island, summer interns were able to attend workshops and meetings with other scientists and organizations working on sustainability, including coral restoration, food security and sustainable agriculture on the island, and energy sustainability in the Caribbean,” Austin said.
On campus, Austin is working with Rosa on a project to build an artificial reef that will restore Conn’s riverfront into a sustainable aquatic habitat and living laboratory. Rosa received a $10,000 grant from Kenny Chesney’s No Shoes Reefs to partner with the Reef Ball Foundation to pilot a reef ball program in the Thames near the new docks.
After she graduates this spring, Austin plans to pursue a doctorate in marine conservation biology, focusing on coral reef ecology and invertebrate resiliency in the wake of climate change. She hopes to eventually become a professor and conduct research at a university or lead a conservation team at an aquarium or other foundation.