Diving In!

Written by Amanda Cruz, OneHealth REU program 2022 participant

Cruz extracting DNA in a laboratory.
Me working on DNA Extractions in the lab!

My name is Amanda Cruz. I’m from Miami, Florida, and I’m a rising junior at Florida International University. Right now, I’m 1759 miles away from home at the University of Maine, participating in the OneHealth REU Program.

My whole life, I have been a very indecisive person. One of the only things I’ve always known for sure is that I love science. When I was younger, I cycled through wanting to be whatever Steve Irwin was, an astronaut, an “animal psychologist”, and a vet. I had decided on being a vet, until I had to take the temperature of a lamb I was raising in agriscience in 10th grade, and changed my mind. I started college in 11th grade, majoring in Biology and on the pre-med track. I was pretty set on being a doctor of some kind, something that had occurred to me when I watched Grey’s Anatomy in middle school. I stuck with this for four years, and everyone in my life knew I was going to become a doctor.

As sure as I was, taking classes and revisiting my interests began to change my mind about what I’d like to do. I realized I wasn’t as excited for a future in the medical field as I thought I was, and I knew being unsure would not be great for me in the long run. I ended up deciding to switch to something related to wildlife research and conservation, things which have always been interesting to me. I really love marine mammals, and the idea of doing research in the field really appealed to me.

Even after all of this, my indecisiveness started to creep up on me. Switching from wanting to work in the medical field to working in marine research felt like a giant step for me and intimidated me very much. After initially getting the idea, it took me a few months to contact my advisor and make the switch. I’m grateful now that I decided to do it. I’ve felt so much more excited in the past 6 months since I changed it than I did the three years I spent working toward a future in the medical field.

In the same way, I’m glad I dove into the unknown to come to this internship. I knew what I was doing when I applied but being accepted made it so much more real. I got nervous and stressed, and the feeling persisted as I arrived here. I had never lived away from home, and the first time I was, I would be a 25-hour drive away.

In my few weeks here, I’ve learned so much both in the lab and about my future. I know now what my future academic career will probably look like through conversations with Dr. Kristina Cammen and PhD student Christina McCosker, who have both helped me understand the next steps and possibilities I could take. I know I want to be a doctor, just not a medical one! My project, which aims to find out if the MHC1 genes of harbor seals can give insight into their survival of phocine distemper virus, specifically during an outbreak in 2018, has piqued my interest in marine mammal health specifically. I’m still not completely sure which area of research I’d like to go into, but through my project, I’ve learned several lab techniques that will be useful in the future. I’ve also learned about science communications, metadata organization, and collaborations that are required for successful and effective research. I’ve also been able to get hands-on experience with what it’s like to do research day-to-day.

Both switching my major and coming to the REU OneHealth program has instilled confidence in me about doing things that I’m not sure of. After this, I’m heading to Stonybrook for an exchange semester to continue exploring marine biology field work and classes. I’m spending a total of 6 months away from home, and as scary as it’s been, this year has taught me to dive headfirst into things that I want to do, even as nervous as I may be. There is no right or wrong decision, and whatever decisions I make, I can adapt and grow. I’m excited to see how this time away helps me understand what a career in marine biology research will look like.

Harbor seals lounging on a rock surrounded by ocean.
Credit Halle Evans. My research subjects, harbor seals, taken on a puffin tour I went on in Port Clyde, Maine.