An Exciting Senior Year: Interview with Leyna Stemle, Marine Biology ‘18

May 4, 2018

by Dr. Gabriel Langford
Associate Professor of Biology

Leyna Stemle is an outstanding student, and her efforts in the classroom and doing research have earned her much success. She received the highest award FSC bestows on our students, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to do research in Africa, and will be attending graduate school. I recently sat down with her to discuss her journey and her accomplishments.

Why did you select Florida Southern? What other schools did you consider?

I think interacting with the people at FSC compared to other schools really made me choose FSC. I talked to Dr. Gabriel Langford even before coming to school here and it was helpful! My Mom and I even got a personal golf cart tour when we visited because she had a broken foot and we couldn’t join a walking tour. The personal aspect of FSC has made all the difference. I considered going to University of Missouri – Colombia, Missouri State, University of Central Florida, Stanford, and University of North Florida.

What type of research did you conduct at Florida Southern?

I did mostly Ecology research, but I focused on my thesis and my research partner’s, Kristen Martinet, thesis. My Honors Thesis was on the Striped Mud Turtle population and their movements at Circle B Bar Reserve! It involved a mark-recapture study - which involved hand making 40 traps!- and radio telemetry. It has been amazing to work with a reserve and get to do hands-on research that was catered towards my interests and career.

When did you first hear about the Fulbright Program? And what drove you to apply?

I think I first heard about the Fulbright Program when Jasmine Childress (FSC ’16 Biology Major) was a finalist for it. Then, it was continually reinforced with lectures from visiting Fulbrighters talking about the program. When I learned about how great of an opportunity it was and how it could easily fit into my career I started to consider it more. Once I was serious about applying, a dream project started to form when I got in contact with a professor in my network that I knew did work in Ghana.

How did Florida Southern help you prepare for and apply to the Fulbright?

FSC helped me a lot. I had multiple meetings with Dr. Vause, the Fulbright Program Advisor, and an intensive two-day workshop. Additionally, Dr. Vause and Dr. G Langford helped me with multiple drafts of my Statement of Grant Purpose, Personal Statement, and short answer questions.

Leyna posing with a mud turtle, the subject of her research at FSC.
Leyna posing with a mud turtle, the subject of her research at FSC.

How did you feel when you heard that you won the Fulbright award?

I couldn’t believe it! It was getting pretty late in April, and I knew that Africa normally had their committee meetings in April, so I was getting nervous, but it all worked out! As I continue to fill out all the official paperwork it is starting to feel more real!

What will you be doing in Ghana?

I will be looking into how different sea turtle species are impacted by LED lights on gill nets. These lights could help deter sea turtles (so they aren’t killed in fishing nets) and, hopefully, the lights will not change fish stocks. So, I will be working with local fisherman monitoring their sea turtle and fish catches, with and without the lights. I also plan to give some lectures at local universities and have some fun activities on sea turtles for kids!

What are your plans when the Fulbright concludes?

I will be attending University of Miami to obtain a Ph.D. in Biology! There, I will study conservation biology and herpetology while being a teacher’s assistant. After obtaining a PhD, I plan to pursue a position where I can participate in conservation-focused research with global implications. At some point in my career, I also hope to work in government agencies and help with the management aspects of conservation.

You were also awarded the top honor for a graduating senior at Florida Southern, known as "Honor Walk". Were you surprised? Were you excited?

I was really surprised and excited! There were a lot of great nominees and I had no idea on the day of that I would receive the award! I had focused on practicing for my speech to introduce Dr. Guy Harvey, the Honorary Chancellor, and so I hadn’t really given much thought to who was going to get Honor Walk. I was really astonished when Dr. Kerr started her speech and it was about me! It is such an honor and I still can’t believe that it has been bestowed upon me!

In addition to being awarded Honor Walk, you were asked to introduce Guy Harvey as the Honorary Chancellor. Did you have time to interact with Dr. Harvey? What was he like?

Yes, I got to talk to Guy Harvey a little bit before and after Convocation! He was very friendly and down-to-earth. We talked a bit about Lakeland and his inspiration for paintings. He seemed like a neat guy.

You also had the privilege of attending the World Oceans Summit in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. What were the main takeaways from that meeting? What did you learn?

I think the main take-away from the meeting was that policymakers, people in office, scientists, investors and lawyers need to work together for the betterment of protecting our environment. Additionally, it was great to see how small the worlds of each of our careers is; for example, I was able to network and meet two people that knew or grew up in the same suburb of St. Louis that I grew up in! Such a small world, and every chance to network improves your career!

Will you be presenting or publishing your own research in the future?

Yes, I plan on publishing my research! Currently, we have a draft of a publication version of my thesis and I hope to be able to get enough data during my Fulbright to publish a few times! Also, I plan to present my thesis work at the Joint Meeting of Itchologists and Herpetologist Conference in New York this summer.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

I hope to be doing a Post Doc position somewhere cool around the world! After that, I would like to work with a governmental or private environmental organization for a bit. Eventually, I would like to be a professor and be able to run my own research lab!

Finally, any advice for incoming first year students hoping to follow your path?

I always work hard and try my absolute best. I think that students should always work hard, because you can’t expect good results if you don’t put work into something. Also, get involved, in clubs, honors societies and research, but don’t get TOO involved that you don’t have time for your schoolwork and yourself. My advice is to strive for the right balance between schoolwork and research vs. extracurriculars and making friends.