Saving sea turtles

Kathryn “Katy” Hegarty ’16 will spend her first year after Wheaton studying sea turtles in Malaysia on a Fulbright Research Grant—expanding on work she began last summer during an internship on Cape Cod.

Hegarty, a double major in biology and Hispanic studies, spent the summer after her junior year studying northern diamondback terrapin turtles in Wellfleet and Orleans, Mass., under the guidance of Professor Emerita of Biochemistry Barbara Brennessel. She patrolled the beach in search of terrapins and their nesting sites, conducting a population survey and helping to secure nests against predators.

“Working with Professor Brennessel was a transformative experience, which allowed me to think creatively and use skills I had developed in the classroom to address issues I observed in the field,” Hegarty said.

The internship inspired Hegarty to further study how terrapins choose their nest locations for her senior honor’s thesis. Specifically, she looked at soil moisture, vegetation and other ecological factors around natural and human-made nesting sites, with the goal of helping conservationists construct better turtle gardens to support nesting for the threatened species.

“After working with the northern diamondback terrapin population in Wellfleet and Orleans I became interested in using the skills I had acquired studying this terrapin population and applying them to aid endangered turtle species as a means of augmenting other turtle conservation efforts,” Hegarty said.

She decided to apply for a Fulbright grant and reached out to Professor Juanita Joseph, project leader of the Sea Turtle Research Unit (SEATRU) of the Institute of Oceanography and Environment at the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. Joseph, who studies the endangered green sea turtle and critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle on Redang Island in Malaysia, agreed to a collaboration.

Hegarty will continue her study of nesting preferences in Malyasia and also hopes to volunteer as an English tutor at a local school. In high school, she tutored middle school students; at Wheaton she volunteered at the local Head Start, specializing in Spanish translation. She also has served as a residential advisor and a preceptor while at Wheaton.

Along with preparing for her Fulbright research, the Providence, R.I., native has been busy studying for the GRE, which she hopes to take before heading off to Malaysia.

“After Wheaton, I plan to pursue a master’s and Ph.D. in marine biology,” Hegarty said. “Ultimately, I hope to be a professor, continuing ecological research with my future students.”