Scripps Student Spotlight: Lena Stasiak

MAS MBC student explores environmental DNA to support sea turtle conservation efforts

Lena Stasiak is a student in the Master of Advanced Studies program in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (MAS MBC) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Stasiak is from Milwaukee, Wis., and studied zoology and microbiology at the University of Maine. At Scripps, she studies sea turtle genetics. Stasiak is advised by Scripps marine biologist Ron Burton and Scripps lecturer Peter Dutton, who also leads the Marine Turtle Genetics Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center. 


explorations now (en): Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Stasiak’s first time visiting Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Lena Stasiak (LS): After completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Maine, I moved to Chicago to research cancer genomics at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. I spent three years there gaining experience in molecular and cellular biology before applying for several master's programs. I wanted to transfer the knowledge and skills I had acquired working in cancer genetics research to conservation genetics research. The Scripps MAS MBC program stood out to me because it is interdisciplinary and would allow me to explore various paths. I knew I wanted to continue working in research, but I always felt passionate about conservation. The MAS MBC program seemed like the perfect opportunity to transition my skills to meet my future career goals.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

LS: My capstone project explores the potential of environmental DNA (eDNA) in sea turtle genetics studies. I am collaborating with NOAA's Sea Turtle Genetics Lab to investigate the reliability and applicability of eDNA techniques by comparing tissue samples with corresponding water samples from green and leatherback sea turtles. I am also creating an assay, an analysis that determines the presence and amount of a substance, that can quantify the amount of sea turtle DNA in the water samples. This can answer questions about relative abundance, which is the percent composition of an organism of a particular kind compared to the total number of organisms in the environment.


Stasiak in September 2023 on an excursion with whale sharks with Procetus, a research-based project in Baja California, Mexico, that aims to contribute to the conservation of whales and dolphins.

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

LS: I was able to study abroad in Tanzania as an undergraduate student and worked on wildlife conservation projects in the field. I got to be out in nature every day and was fully immersed in my work. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I continued to work in research but was working full-time in a lab. I wanted to get back into the field, so finding the Scripps MAS MBC program felt like the perfect transition for me, as I wanted to end up in a position that would allow me to balance that lab time with fieldwork as well! 


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

LS: A typical day is busy but on a beautiful campus! I usually have classes up and down the hill at Scripps, and I am in and out of Hubbs Hall and NOAA labs. Since moving to San Diego, I have taken up surfing and recently got my scuba diving certification. I’m excited to start scuba diving recreationally, in addition to snorkeling. 


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

LS: I love that I can work both in a lab setting and in the field. Being out in the ocean collecting water samples and bringing them back to the lab for processing has added a whole new dimension to the scientific research process. Environmental DNA is currently a hot topic, offering a noninvasive alternative for detecting and monitoring rare and elusive species. It is exciting to be able to contribute to this research and collaborate with passionate scientists. 


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

Stasiak conducting field surveys in Catalina Island as a part of the MAS MBC program at Scripps Oceanography.

LS: Ron Burton and Peter Dutton have been helping me with my capstone project. Scientists in both of their labs have also welcomed me and provided me with the space and help I need to work on my project.


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

LS: Finding the balance between academics and maintaining well-being is always a challenge, but being in a beautiful place and surrounded by a great support system has helped me immensely. Additionally, living right next to the ocean for the first time in my life makes a lot of the challenges well worth it!


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

LS: I would love to continue to work in conservation genetics at the academic or federal level. I am also interested in pursuing a PhD in the next year or so after working in this field for a bit!


You can connect with Stasiak on Instagram at @lenastasiak.

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