Fulbright Flashback: Leyna Stemle ‘18
May 26, 2023
Leyna Stemle ’18 always had a plan when it came to her education.
Even before Stemle stepped foot on the Florida Southern College campus, the St. Louis, Mo., native had already contacted Dr. Gabriel Langford, the Marine Biology Program Director and George W. Truitt Endowed Chair in the Sciences.
To say Stemle impressed Langford would be an understatement.
“Leyna has the unique distinction of being the only student to contact me in high school to insist on doing four years of research at FSC,” Dr. Langford said. “Most incoming students are more worried about what classes they are taking or who they are rooming with, not their Honors Thesis Advisor and developing a project.”
Stemle would go on to earn her bachelor of science in marine biology with a minor in environmental studies from Florida Southern and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Miami in its biology department. Stemle’s focus is on herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles), with a concentration on turtles.
Before Stemle left for Miami, she asked if she could defer her enrollment into the doctoral program for a year while she took advantage of her U.S. Fulbright Grant award in Ghana.
Miami approved her request and Stemle became one of four Florida Southern students to study abroad in 2018-19 thanks to the U.S. Fulbright Program.
So how does a high school student from St. Louis find her way to Lakeland and Florida Southern?
“My family vacationed a lot in Central Florida, and now they live here,” Stemle said. “I loved the aquariums and beaches and it translated to a love of turtles.”
When Stemle was looking at colleges, she wanted somewhere she could work closely with her professors, in addition to a place with an ecosystem that lent itself to her love of turtles.
Florida Southern had the small class sizes Stemle could “thrive” in and the thought of working on her degree in amphibian and reptile rich Florida enticed her to contact Dr. Langford.
During Stemle’s visit, Langford not only showed her around the Polk Science Building, but also Lake Hollingsworth and took her on a trip to Circle B Bar and Reserve.
Stemle was sold.
For four years at Florida Southern Stemle literally dug into her research as she continued to impress Dr. Langford along the way.
“During her first year on campus, Leyna displayed the drive, curiosity, and intellect of a seasoned graduate student,” Dr. Langford said. “She frequently stayed after class to discuss ecological concepts and earned the top grade in several of my classes.”
Stemle developed and conducted an original multi-year study on the spatial ecology and natural history of Striped Mud Turtles in the swampy areas of Circle B Bar Reserve.
She presented her research findings at regional and national meetings, where Dr. Langford said some faculty thought Stemle was already a graduate student.
Stemle began volunteering at Circle B Bar and Reserve during her sophomore year and her work there helped earn her a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) student researcher spot studying loggerhead sea turtles for Duke University the summer before her junior year started.
She was also able to study abroad in Bimini in The Bahamas during October of her junior year, and her Junior Journey to South Africa later in her third year helped pave the way for her next adventure.
Back to Africa
Stemle heard about the Fulbright Program from Dr. Langford and some guest speakers while at Florida Southern.
It was with Dr. Langford’s urging that Stemle sent in her Fulbright application to study leatherback and olive ridley turtles in Ghana.
Stemle was accepted and for a year after graduation (May 2018 to May 2019), she lived in Winneba, Ghana as she helped both man and turtle with her research project.
The turtles were inadvertently getting caught in the nets of fishermen, causing not only damage to the nets but also sometimes resulting in death for the turtles.
Stemle, along with other researchers, helped come up with the idea of attaching small green LED lights to the fishermen’s nets to see if the turtles would avoid the nets.
It was a success for all parties.
The turtles stayed away from the nets, fish were not deterred by the light, and Stemle got to publish another paper on her research.
“It was a bad situation because the turtles would get caught in these artisanal gill nets,” Stemle said. “The turtles would destroy the nets, and then drown. So, we were trying to see if we could use technology to stop the turtles from getting caught. It ended up working really well without impacting the fishing.”
As Stemle continues her research on her way to completing her doctorate in 2024, she looks back fondly on the memories she made at Florida Southern.
From her classmates to Dr. Langford, Stemle is grateful for all the help she received along the way.
“Florida Southern changed my life for the better,” she said. “I had the input of so many people and it was great to have that support. A lot of places you don’t have that. I feel like my connection to Florida Southern will never stop.”
Dr. Langford and Stemle still keep in touch, and she still impresses her teacher with every step.
“Since her graduation from FSC, I have had the pleasure to watch Leyna's career trajectory from a (short) distance while she is at the University of Miami,” Dr. Langford said. “She continues to win grants and publish peer-reviewed papers on the organisms she loves. It is exceedingly easy to brag about Leyna, she is easy-going and communicative, and beneath that friendly surface she is a very serious student and one who is on top of the scientific literature, creative in her science, adaptable, and focused on her professional development. I look forward to watching her future accomplishments, and I have no doubt she will be leading a diverse research group after completing a postdoctoral position. I'm just happy to have played a part in Leyna's success.”