Scripps Student Spotlight: Erica Ferrer

PhD candidate researches sustainability in small-scale fisheries

Erica Ferrer is in her fifth year of studying marine biology as a PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, with a special interest in fisheries, community ecology, and climate change. Ferrer spent most of her childhood in Miami, Fla., before attending the University of California Santa Cruz as an undergraduate, where she studied marine biology and chemistry. She currently works in the lab of Scripps marine ecologist Octavio Aburto.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Erica Ferrer: I chose to attend Scripps to join Octavio Aburto’s lab. The students and researchers in our lab focus on a variety of marine conservation issues throughout Mexico, many of which are broadly applicable to parts of the southern United States and Latin America. For personal and professional reasons, I wanted to work on marine issues in Latin America, and I was particularly interested in the Aburto Lab’s research related to small-scale fisheries. There are so many great PhD programs one could choose to pursue, but I was personally drawn to Scripps given the Aburto Lab’s unique research foci, plus the amazing opportunities made available to Scripps grad students.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

Erica Ferrer with a starfish in hand

EF: Generally speaking, my dissertation research focuses on small-scale fisheries in Northwest Mexico and relevant climate changes. The first chapter of my thesis focuses on the carbon footprint of small-scale fisheries, which in most cases, is quite small relative to other sources of food. My second chapter exposes a connection between increasing fishing pressure and an increase in carbon emissions associated with seafood, suggesting that if we want to maintain fisheries' low carbon footprint, we should be thinking about ways to prevent or end overfishing. Through this work, I have become quite interested in fisheries that are both low-carbon and minimally invasive to ecosystems. One class of organisms that appears to be consistently low-carbon, most likely sustainable, and worthy of additional research are bivalves, according to the scientific literature and my own results. Bivalves are molluscs that are enclosed by a hinged shell, like mussels, oysters, and scallops. Finding this quite intriguing, I began to wonder if most bivalves in Mexico are resilient to climate change. So for the third chapter of my thesis, I tested the effects of chronic versus acute heat stress on the Mano de León scallop. This scallop is noticeable for its beauty (and swimming abilities!), and has been sought after for its delicious meat in various parts of Northwest Mexico for generations. It makes up what is currently a closed fishery, but it is still of great interest to fishers and fishery managers.


en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?

EF:  I have always felt a great fondness and fascination towards animals, and my family has strong ties to the ocean. Since I was a little kid, I have been keenly aware of resource inequalities (although I’m not sure I could have articulated it well back then). And growing up in Florida, I saw some of the wild places that I cared about become altered by anthropogenic activity in profound ways. I am interested in science and came around to my field of study because I see it as an effective tool for understanding and protecting the people and planet that I love. I’d of course be remiss if I didn’t also mention that I think it’s pretty fun!


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.

EF: Haha, I wouldn’t say I’ve had a “typical day” lately! But, if I were to describe one of my favorite sort of days at Scripps, it would go like this: whizzing down the Scripps hill around 9:00 a.m. on my electric bike (the best part of the day), going straight to Pinpoint Cafe for a latte and “hellos” to friendly faces, an almost full day of data analysis with a few new emails, free lunch somewhere or candy from Gilbert Bretado (one of the advisors in the Scripps Grad Office), and a sweaty bike ride up back up the hill at the end of the day, made only slightly better by the fact that I have pedal assist.


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?

EF: I think that one of the best things about my job is the people it connects me to. I also love the moments when my work takes me outside, and I can just sit and watch the way of the world.


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

EF: Certainly my mom, my dad, my family members, and my close friends have provided me with countless pep talks, professional guidance, and moments of happiness that inspire me to keep going. My undergraduate advisor Kristy Kroeker, and the members of her lab at UC Santa Cruz, immediately come to mind when I think about key mentors in my life—not only for their scientific acumen and enthusiasm, but also their kindness. Since starting grad school, I have met several people who have either mentored me or had my back academically, including my advisor Octavio Aburto, Scripps Professor Lisa Levin, Zaul Garcia at the Autonomous University of Baja California in Ensenada, my Scripps SURF program advisor Tony Koslow, the members of the Center of Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC), and my labmates. Director of Diversity Initiatives Keiara Auzenne and the members of the Scripps Community Engagement team, past and present, consistently inspire me, as do my peers who have been there to commiserate or share accomplishments with. There are so many people who have either helped me directly, given me pointers, or inadvertently changed the way I think about the world—too many to list. So, I also give thanks to those unnamed here!


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

EF: There are many challenges one will and may face as a graduate student—especially given the difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the challenges I feel comes up a lot in grad school is finding a good work-life balance. Personally, I’ve not found an enduring balance just yet, though it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time and energy thinking about. I guess my unsolicited advice for people who feel this way too is to be kind to yourself, know you’re not alone, and trust that part of finding balance is learning how to channel imbalance.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

EF: It’s hard to know for certain! At this point in time, I know I’d like to pursue a postdoc at a research university. But beyond that, there are many career paths that would make me happy. I’d be very open to a career in academia or, for example, non-profit work related to conservation and policy. Wherever life takes me, I hope I will be near the ocean, working on something that has a positive impact in the world!

You can find Ferrer on Twitter @Erica_M_Ferrer. 


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