Feature Story

October 28, 2010 | By Cole Hatcher

Have Curiosity, Will Travel

OWU student Cailee Smith helped to save the life of a newborn leatherback turtle while spending two weeks this summer at the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Costa Rica. The hatchling, which fit into the palm of her hand, eventually could weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. (Photo courtesy of Cailee Smith ’12)

On August 23, the first day of fall classes at Ohio Wesleyan University, Cailee Smith ’12 returned to campus with just enough time to park her car and dash off to organic chemistry class.

“I didn’t really stop this summer,” says Smith, a zoology major from Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Talk about an understatement.

Smith’s summer began with a 10-day trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands to study island biology with nearly 20 fellow OWU students and zoology professors John Gatz and Ramon Carreno.

A day after returning from South America, she was due at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where she had been selected to participate in the prestigious GLOBES (Global Linkages of Biology, the Environment, and Society) Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

And a day after presenting her research findings at a Notre Dame symposium, Smith was due in Costa Rica, where she spent two weeks researching green sea turtles with the support of OWU zoology professor Amy Downing and a University theory-to-practice grant. Smith arrived back in Ohio during the wee hours of August 23.

Because she hadn’t been able to move into her residence hall, didn’t have a room key, and didn’t want to wake her roommates, Smith rented a hotel room at the Columbus airport, caught a few hours of sleep, and drove to Ohio Wesleyan just in time to begin classes.

“I was a little jet-lagged that morning,” she confesses. But, Smith says, she also had some life-altering learning experiences.

During the Galapagos Islands biology course, memorable moments include watching the mating dance of the blue-footed booby and seeing the circle of life created by the death of a yellowfin tuna.

Smith says she was mesmerized while watching a male sea lion eat the giant fish. The area was teeming with other life—iguana, frigate birds, white-tipped reef shark, and even a pelican—all seeking direct or indirect nourishment from the tuna, she recalls.

“It was rewarding to take what we learned in class and apply it to the islands,” Smith says, noting that kleptoparasitism (a form of feeding in which one animal takes prey or other food from another) was just one of the classroom concepts she and her classmates observed in action on the Pacific islands.

At the University of Notre Dame, Smith examined parasitoid wasps under the guidance of Jeffrey Feder, Ph.D., and graduate student Glen Hood. Smith studied morphology and conducted behavioral tests, such as how wasps respond to different fruit smells and how their odor responses yield clues about how they have evolved. Smith was the only undergraduate working the Feder’s lab, but she met several other undergraduates taking part in summer research experiences.

“We still stay in touch,” Smith says of her new friends. “Hopefully, we can be colleagues in the future.”

In Costa Rica, Smith says, she became nocturnal for her two weeks at the Sea Turtle Conservancy, located in the village of Tortuguero. She typically assisted in research from 8 p.m. to midnight or from midnight to 4 a.m. During the second shift, Smith helped to count the number of eggs laid by female sea turtles as the eggs fell into the sandy nests. While most turtles lay about 100 eggs, Smith’s first female laid 132.

“It was amazing to be so intimate with the turtle,” says Smith, who counted the eggs by feeling them fall. “She’s undergoing such an endeavor to create new life. I could hear her breathe and see the scratches on her shell, indicating everything that she had survived to be there on that beach at that moment. That was my favorite part. It really brings things into perspective.”

While at the conservancy, Smith also helped to save the life of a newborn leatherback turtle by helping the hatchling get from its nest to the ocean. The hatchling, which fit into the palm of her hand, eventually could reach 8 feet long and 2,000 pounds.

“At least it made it to the water,” Smith says of the tiny hatchling. “Words can’t describe what it felt like to see the baby sea turtle swimming away and starting its life.”

Now that’s she resumed her OWU life, Smith is busy studying pinworm biodiversity with professors Carreno and Laura Tuhela-Reuning, the University’s scanning electron microscope technician. Smith’s research is supported by a Microscopy Society of America undergraduate research scholarship. She is among fewer than 10 students nationwide to earn one of the society’s 2010 scholarships.

Smith’s current work involves using the scanning electron microscope to identify the distinguishing characteristics of pinworms found in mole crickets, millipedes, and various cockroach species. She then hopes to compare these new data with DNA sequences to reaffirm the identity of each species.

With so many varied learning experiences to draw upon, Smith hasn’t decided what she will do after graduation in 2012.

“I know I definitely want a career in science,” she says, noting that she eventually will need to pare down her interests. Before making a final decision, however, Smith hopes to travel to Panama to work with endangered amphibians and Thailand to work with elephants.

Asked whether she is pursuing any minors in addition to her zoology major, Smith says no. That’s one area, she believes, where less can sometimes be more. “I want to take advantage of Ohio Wesleyan’s liberal arts curriculum,” she says. “I want to dabble.”

When she’s not studying parasites and organic chemistry or learning about the history of the Black Death (a current favorite class), Smith can be found at the local ice rink.

A 2008 graduate of Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro, Massachusetts, Smith is a gold medalist in ice dancing, a former national silver medalist in synchronized team skating, and a certified figure skating coach. “Skating is something I do for me,” she says.

Looking back over her hectic summer schedule, Smith smiles and admits she may plan a less ambitious itinerary for 2011. “My mom would really like me to spend at least a week at home,” she says.