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Justine Jackson-Ricketts

University of California Santa Cruz

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Advisor: Dr. Daniel Costa



My research experiences are varied, but consistently within the marine and/or biological sciences realm. My first opportunity came in my junior year of high school, when I attended a three-week program for high school students at the University of Miami called Summer Scholars. The program offered a course selection in Marine Science, which had been of primary interest for me since childhood. Over the course of those three weeks, I handled, measured, and determined the sex of small brackish pond fish species, and with a lab partner presented the results of our first research project to the class. I learned the scientific names of a plethora of marine flora and fauna, how to use a seine net, and the proper technique for taking sediment core samples. We spent the majority of one week visiting and learning about mangrove communities, which furthered my established interest in ecosystems and the collective function of their inhabitants.


I received my bachelor of science degree in Biology from Duke University. The transition from a small-town high school that had recently undergone budget cuts to a notoriously expensive private university was overwhelming to say the least. However, I truly enjoyed my years at Duke and feel that the education and skills I received there will prove a valuable asset to my future work. My courses in biology ranged from the basic introductory level through intermediate genetics, molecular biology and ecosystem ecology to the specifics of marine animal physiology, marine invertebrate zoology, and marine megafauna. In an effort to broaden my mind and also to avoid abandoning another childhood passion, I chose to minor in both Earth and Ocean Sciences (EOS) and English. In these motifs, I learned about basic geology and oceanography, macroevolution based on the fossil record, Native American literature, African and Caribbean literature, Victorian era poetry, and the intricate conflicts between the concepts of magic, religion, and science. In my first year, as part of the general requirements for undergraduates, I took a seminar course about major current environmental issues such as global warming and overfishing and a writing course that focused on coral reefs. In addition to my classes, I worked as a research assistant to two different scientists at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent): Dr. Samantha Price for my first two and a half years, and Dr. Craig McClain for my last year.


Dr. Price alerted me to an unpaid research assistantship with Jennifer Lewis, a doctoral candidate at Florida International University studying dolphin behavioral ecology in the Florida Keys. During the month-long internship, Jennifer, two other interns and I spent each fair-weather day on a 13-foot gasoline-powered fishing boat scanning the water for dolphins. When we spotted a group of dolphins, we gathered environmental data and information about the dolphins themselves.

Wishing to broaden my intellectual landscape following my internship, I chose a policy-based independent study research project during my semester at the Duke Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, NC. I studied the policy and pollution of stormwater runoff ponds as part of my marine-oriented course selections. My research advisors were Dr. Daniel Rittschof and Dr. Michael Orbach and under their mentorship, I outlined the network of administrative power for stormwater runoff pond legislation and evaluated the problems inherent in the established regulations.I subsequently spent six weeks that summer at the marine lab, where I continued my work with Dr. Rittschof and other undergraduate students on the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon content of stormwater runoff ponds and resident snails.


One of my courses during my semester at the marine lab, Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles, included a trip to Trinidad to study the nesting behavior of leatherback sea turtles for one short week. Along with noting physical condition of and tagging (if not already tagged) each female that we found in our patrol zone, we recorded environmental and location data. My four-person group measured the emergence and return crawls of the nesting females and correlated that with environmental parameters along with timing and number of simulated camera flashes, as the nesting beach is a tourist attraction. The information we recorded would later be compiled and analyzed by a local conservation group in order to determine the best method for protecting the nesting leatherback females on that beach.

I briefly worked as a laboratory assistant to Dr. Tom Schultz in the Marine Conservation Molecular Facility at the Duke Marine Lab.

During my senior year, I became the principal biology major in a multidisciplinary team of students spanning environmental studies, biology, and engineering. We designed an artificial wetland as a restoration project for a small creek on campus.

After I graduated, I continued to work for Dr. McClain, who offered me a laboratory assistant spot on an exploratory research cruise to the Taney Seamounts off the coast of California. The research was conducted through the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.


While my experiences have been varied , together they have served well to shape my research interest to encompass different facets of biology.

I am currently working towards my Ph.D. at the University of California Santa Cruz in Dr. Daniel Costa's laboratory.

Research Interests

Generally, trophic dynamics and the complexity of food webs intrigue me. More specifically, I am fascinated by the role top predators (species at the top of their particular food chain, no matter the length of the chain) play in ecosystem structure, function, and resiliency. I am further interested in the potential for scientific research to inform conservation planning and practice. I believe that the study of top predators and their importance to the ecosystems they inhabit can provide a new avenue by which to approach conservation. I am also concerned by the rapid and dramatic changes occurring in Earth's climate and their potential effects on organisms and ecosystems.

My interests have led me to an exciting research topic. I plan to model the habitat of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Gulf of Thailand, a species listed as both vulnerable and critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are also considered data deficient, so hopefully the research being done on them will help to establish a more definite listing and inform management in southeast Thailand. In conjunction with my habitat modeling work, I will be helping to give presentations at nearby schools in order to increase awareness about Irrawaddy dolphins among the younger generation. I will further work closely with local government officials to establish a sustainable dolphin watch program that minimizes disturbance of the dolphins.