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Blugold to graduate after 2½ years, pursue career in marine biology

| Judy Berthiaume

Some kids look to their parents for the answers to those often-asked questions like “Why is the sky blue?”

Emily Witt decided to figure it out for herself with a little help from UW-Eau Claire.

“I wanted to be a biology major because I was always interested in ‘why,’” says Witt, a Wausau native who will graduate from UW-Eau Claire this month with a degree in biology. “Why does my heart beat? Why is the sky blue? Why do animals interact the way they do? Biology helps me answer the ‘why’ questions in the world.”

While she’s not found all the answers to her many questions, she found professors who nurtured her curiosity, helped her hone her research skills and gave her experiences that will help her be successful in a future career that excites her.

“I’ve formed strong, personal relationships with professors in the biology department, and I feel incredibly comfortable and excited to attend their classes every week,” Witt says.

She’s also found a plethora of outside-the-class room opportunities that allowed her to use her knowledge in real-world settings.

For example, as part of an invertebrate zoology class, Witt spent two weeks in Costa Rica, both by the coast and in the cloud forest, looking for marine invertebrates and tropical invertebrates that connect to what she was learning in class.

“The field study really enhanced my classroom experience because I could see the organisms we discussed in class in their natural habitats,” Witt says, noting that in Costa Rica she also got to scuba dive for the first time.

A summer internship at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands created even more real-world learning opportunities.

“I conducted my own study where I was able to describe a fish species endemic to Galapagos,” Witt says. “The fish, commonly called Blanquillo, is 30 percent of the overall artisanal catch, but little was known about the species or the sustainability of the fishing of this species. I evaluated if the fishing was sustainable. I’m currently working on publishing my research.”

During her internship, she also worked on other studies regarding marine conservation in Galapagos.

“While the research was fun, I also enjoyed diving on the weekends (I saw a whale shark!), and spending time with the scientists and other volunteers,” Witt says.

These high-impact experiences made her rethink her future career plans, which had included working in the medical field.

Instead, she says, she now wants to work with marine-related research.

“When I was in Costa Rica, I fell in love with marine invertebrates, and I had to admit to myself that I would never feel as fulfilled working in a hospital every day — my previous plan — because of the joy I felt from looking in tide pools,” Witt says. “After witnessing the amazing marine research, as well as getting to partake in it, I love the idea of being outside every day, contributing to marine conservation efforts.”

Witt is getting a jump on starting her career because despite her busy schedule as a Blugold, she is graduating in just 2½ years.

Thanks to high school courses, she came to UW-Eau Claire with more than 30 college credits already completed.

Once on campus, she continued to take a heavy course load, pushing herself to graduate early but being sure to leave enough time to take the many biology classes that interested her.

The biology faculty, she says, supported and challenged her every step of the way.

“I was able to create amazing connections with my professors, which was one of the most meaningful aspects of my college career,” Witt says. “UW-Eau Claire also provided high-impact experiences that allowed me to explore marine biology with my Midwestern-based education.”

She now will put her knowledge and skills to work at Southern Cross University in Australia, where she will assist in research involving whales, their migratory patterns and how they are affected by climate change.

Witt also plans to attend graduate school to study shark conservation, a program that will lead, she hopes, to a career working specifically with whale sharks.

While her UW-Eau Claire degree will open many doors in the future, Witt says it also will help her do one more thing that is important to her — continue a family tradition.

Both her parents, Laura and Andy Witt, are Blugold alumni as well.

“My parents graduating from UW-Eau Claire initially deterred me from attending here,” Witt says of her family’s Blugold legacy. “I wanted to be my own person and have my own experiences.

“But when my parents convinced me to tour UW-Eau Claire, it gave me a sense of home that I could not deny. I knew that I had to attend.”

The rest, as they say, is Blugold history.

Photo caption: Emily Witt, who will graduate after just 2½ years, plans to pursue a career in marine-related research.