Four women breaking into science

There are four women carving out a space in their respective scientific fields, clearly demonstrating that Jamaica is not lagging in the space of research.

The four – Sashalee Cross, Treya-Ann Picking, Reanne McKenzie and Shanna-Lee Thomas – are all leading research projects in different environmental conservation projects across the island.

Institute of Jamaica’s Natural History Museum of Jamaica’s assistant botanist, Sashalee Cross managed a recent research and conservation project targeting the invasive species control and habitat restoration at the Mason River Protected Area (MRPA) that was funded by Jamaica Conservation Partners (JCP), a project of the CB Facey Foundation.

The petite powerhouse from St. Elizabeth said she always had a strong passion for the sciences.

“From as far as I can remember, I had an extreme love of nature as well as the drive to learn more, the fascination of things in nature, the quest for knowledge on how living things were so varied,” Cross explained. “The why, the how and how everything seemed to come together to form the perfect balance intrigues me.”

Sashalee Cross is an assistant botanist at the Natural History Museum of Jamaica

Cross revealed that botany chose her, as although she had no particular interest in plant sciences as an Environmental Biology student at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, her best grades were in plant sciences.

“I felt I found my true love and passion in some of the advanced plant courses.”

The 202-acre MRPA holds Jamaica’s fourth wetland of international importance and is located on the border of St. Ann and Clarendon.

The area also has 430 types of plant species found on the site with 90 per cent being indigenous and approximately 11 per cent being endemic. This special area and plants are, however, being threatened by the invasive Vampire Fern that grows aggressively on lands that have been cleared by fires or have been disturbed by landslides.

The other three women in science practice closer to the water’s edge.

Picking is doing critical work with the American crocodile in the swamps, mangroves and artificial habitats around the island, which received a two-year grant from JCP.

The herpetologist started with catching smaller species, lizards and cane toads in her backyard. Today, she leads a team, helping her pursue research for her Master’s of Philosophy in Zoology at the University of the West Indies, Mona.

Herpetologist Treya-Ann Picking is doing critical work with the American crocodile in the swamps, mangroves and artificial habitats around the island

“My research is focused on the status of the American crocodile in Jamaica where I am conducting the first-ever country-wide survey of the crocodile in Jamaica in collaboration with NEPA (National Environment and Planning Agency), The UWI and the University of Florida , ”Picking explained.

The NEPA environment officer went on: “Since Jamaica is an island rich in reptile and amphibian diversity, it was easy for me to focus on herpetology. This interest only grew when I started working on the conservation and management of the American crocodile in Jamaica. Reptiles and amphibians can be very misunderstood and underappreciated and I am therefore on a mission to help people see the beauty in our island’s herps. ”

For close to two years, Picking spends many nights – in the dank, woven mangroves or open sewage catchments in popular areas in Portmore that mark American crocodile habitats – doing eye-shine surveys and attaching satellite trackers on the endangered reptiles.

Marine biologist Reanne McKenzie manages the White River Fish Sanctuary (WRFS) on the border of St. Mary and St. Ann.

The Sanctuary, in its fifth year of operation protecting 300 acres of coastline east of Ocho Rios, also manages coral farming, grafting and replanting along with a second-phase study to map human activities on the White River.

McKenzie’s two years at the organization, which has benefited from five years of funding from JCP, has really helped solidify her goals and aspirations in the marine field.

“It’s really just a passion. Although it’s my job, it is also my whole life. I love animals and I love the sea, so it is really a no-brainer, ”the native of Trinidad and Tobago, beamed. “What interests me now is how dynamic the underwater systems are; how every organism (animal, plant, shell, etc) has its own individual identity, but is still so interdependent and interactive with each other and creates a whole different world from what we see on the surface. ”

The WRFS, along with patrolling and protecting the habitat, also does public education and community development that McKenzie has become very passionate about.

Shanna-Lee Thomas, lead scientific researcher for the Queen Conch Project at the Discovery Bay Marine Lab

Heading west outside of Ocho Rios is Shanna-Lee Thomas at the Discovery Bay Marine Lab (DBML).

DBML, a teaching and research institution owned and operated by the University of the West Indies, Mona, is currently conducting a study on the spawning of the Queen Conch.

Thomas, also a marine biologist, said her love for sciences, especially biology, and the outdoors led her pursuit of the environmental natural sciences field and conservation.

“Marine biology is a diverse work environment. Scuba diving is always a highlight, ”Thomas beamed. “The work ranges from teaching various groups about the marine environment, to being underwater, and sometimes going through mangrove forests and being knee-deep in mud to collect data.

“Not as exciting, but just as important as collecting data, is the analysis, which can be rewarding once we figure out what the data is telling us and how we will apply what we have learned,” she said. “We live on an island and we all rely on our coastal resources in some way. Through my work, I am able to understand certain problems affecting coastal ecosystems and through research, I am able to find ways of solving or mitigating these problems. ”

Project lead Thomas received the Queen Conch project funded by Jamaica Conservation Partners is trying to pinpoint the exact period in which the conch reproduces to ensure the closed season is accurate.

The project is important because at low density (spread out too far apart) the conch will not spawn or reproduce. The slow-moving conch is easily fished, whether by using scuba gear, snorkeling or freediving and can be easily picked up from the seafloor and the resource overexploited. Work in the protected area also includes community outreach and education of the fisherfolk, as poaching is the major threat to the research subjects – the conch.

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