Scripps Student Spotlight: Leticia Cavole

Marine biology graduate student is studying the effects of climate change on fish growth

Leticia Cavole is a third-year graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. A native of Brazil, Cavole grew up in the small countryside city of Barretos in the state of Sao Paulo. She received her undergraduate degree in oceanography at the University Federal of Rio Grande (FURG), the oldest and one of the most highly regarded marine science programs in Brazil. Cavole is now studying marine biology in the lab of Scripps scientist and alumnus Octavio Aburto-Oropeza. We caught up with Cavole to discuss her path to science, her current research, and what life is like as a Scripps student.


explorations now: What inspired you to pursue a PhD in a science field?

Leticia Cavole: I have always wanted to do something that fosters my curiosity and creativity. I also believe that science—coupled with higher education—is the driving force of progress and development in any nation.


en: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

LC: I chose Scripps because I was very impressed with the quality of research conducted here, especially related to important environmental problems such as climate change and ocean acidification. As a freshman undergraduate, I remember reading about Scripps and seeing photographs of its research fleet. I was immediately drawn to the school's spirit of exploration.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

LC: I am trying to understand the influence of temperature, fishery pressure, and oxygen levels on fish growth. To address this question, I'm using fishes from coastal environments of Latin America and the deep-sea fishes of the California Current Ecosystem. Environments such as coastal mangroves or deep-sea oxygen minimum zones are particularly sensitive to climate change and human impacts. A warming ocean will potentially increase the temperature inside small mangrove lagoons and expand the Oxygen Minimum Zone (OMZ) in the California Current Ecosystem. This may decrease the resilience of fish populations to the impacts of overfishing.

Recently, I’ve been working with juvenile fish living inside mangrove lagoons across Baja California (Mexico) and the Galápagos (Ecuador) to understand the role of temperature. We chose these two ecosystems because they are both home to many important mangrove forests and have marked differences in water temperature—up to 8°C (46.4°F) in the Galápagos, and 17°C (62.6°F) in the Gulf of California. If we understand how fish react to natural and extreme physical conditions in their respective ecosystems, we will have a better idea of how climate change will affect fish growth and population dynamics. This has implications from both a socioeconomic and ecological perspective.

A scientific illustration of an octopus by Leticia Cavole.


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

LC: I really love my work and the view from my office window! I usually come to Scripps in the morning and begin work. When I am a little bit stressed, I like to go for a walk on the beach, go kayaking or surfing (when the water is above 65°F of course). I love sports, art, cooking, and music.  I cook almost every night, and I’m always trying to paint or play some new music. In the past, I worked as a scientific illustrator of new octopus species in the Southwest Atlantic and I am trying to finish my first oil painting of a human.


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work in the field?

LC: I love to be in the water, even when it is very shallow, like mangroves. I also love to watch the fish and the birds in their natural environment and feel the fresh air of new places. I enjoy talking with fishermen and learning about their natural world. It is very nice to communicate your research with people from other fields and I think it is really important to share different world views, especially when we came from different cultures and education backgrounds. I just did some field work in the Baja Peninsula of California, and it is definitely the most enigmatic and precious place I've ever been!


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

LC: Despite being from another field, I really admire astronomer Carl Sagan, mainly because of his skepticism and his ability to communicate science to the general public. I admire my previous advisor in Brazil, Manuel Haimovici, because he is an awesome human being and also very dedicated to collecting long time series under all circumstances (lack of projects, broken cars, etc.). I admire my current advisor, Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, because he’s always thinking outside of the box and thinks about how science can improve the overall quality of life for fishermen and coastal communities in Mexico. And finally, I admire my parents who have always supported my crazy dreams even when they did not understand exactly what I was doing with fish ear bones (otoliths).


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

LC: The most difficult thing for me is finding the balance between being (and feeling!) productive and relaxed. Sometimes, it’s difficult to stay motivated with the pace of research while our wonderful natural world is being destroyed. I think that the most difficult (but important) thing for students to achieve is to find the correct ways to convey the value of one's research outside of academia such that it can change our reality for the better.


en: What are your future plans, post-Scripps?

LC: Be happy. I would love to work in a network to build and help enforce marine protected areas (MPAs), areas of the oceans that restrict fisheries and other anthropogenic activities. I am passionate about working on MPAs because they enable the recovery of marine ecosystems and fish populations and frequently spread these benefits to surrounding areas.


This interview has been condensed and edited.

Related Image Gallery: Scripps Student Spotlight: Leticia Cavole


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