Kathryn Wedemeyer-Strombel

Interdisciplinary Researcher Blends Social and Natural Science

Katie pulls turtle from oceanWhile many graduate students spend their time in offices, archives, and labs conducting research, that is not the case for Environmental Science and Engineering doctoral student, Kathryn Wedemeyer-Strombel. Instead, Katie searches for turtles in the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. A Southern California native, she is no stranger to the ocean, but little did she know she would be traveling the world to study sea turtles for her doctoral dissertation.

Katie’s interdisciplinary research blends social and natural science, exploring the conservation of the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill sea turtle in Central America, specifically in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Once believed to be extinct, fisherman reported the species still living deep inside mangrove estuaries. Although it is known that the Hawksbill’s are nesting within the estuaries, it is unclear where they are growing up. Since it takes 15 to 20 years for sea turtles to mature to reproductive age, Katie wants to determine if they are spending that time in the estuaries or in the open ocean.

Partly funded by a Dodson Research Grant, Katie conducted interviews of fisherman El Salvador and Nicaragua. Months later, she went with the fisherman to capture a few Hawksbill and take skin samples. Using stable isotope analysis of the samples, Katie was able to narrow down possible locations of where the turtles had lived. Though this research has important implication for conservation efforts, Katie has bigger aims. “The overarching goal of my work,” she explained, “is to encourage scientists to engage with the true experts of the area, local fisherman, and to really respect and utilize their expertise.”

Katie has long been interested in connecting the natural sciences with the human condition.  While studying evolutionary and behavioral science and Spanish Literature at the University of California, San Diego, she studied abroad at the Barcelona Zoo the University of Western Australia Center for Evolutionary Biology in Perth. After graduating she began volunteering at a non-profit organization in San Diego called “Ocean Connector” that provided free science and sea turtle conservation education to under-funded schools in the border region of San Diego. These experiences, including a time as lead educator at a small zoo and aquarium in San Diego, led Katie to graduate school. “Those experiences with the kids… seeing the impact science education can have on people, and getting people excited about science,” she remembers, “inspired me to get my Ph.D.”

Now a 5th year doctoral candidate, Katie hopes to lead a science communication center for a university, where she would help researchers translate their science to the general public, write grants, and conduct outreach. In the meanwhile, she and her husband enjoy any activity that involves nature, and hiking the Franklin Mountains make them feel at home in El Paso.katie talks with local fishermen

Learn more about UTEP Graduate Students

Engage with The Graduate School