Twenty Years: Turning Students into Scientists

David Norris | Corpus Christi Bay Ecosystem
Twenty Years: Turning Students into Scientists

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department-Coastal Fisheries (TPWD-CF) celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the TPWD-CF Sponsored Internship Program. The program began in 2002 with just one sponsored intern, and there are now seventeen sponsored intern positions coastwide during the summer!

The TPWD-CF Internship Program was originally developed as a coordinated effort between TPWD-CF, Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC), and Coastal Conservation Association (CCA). The idea came from Kyle Spiller, former Ecosystem Leader for the Upper Laguna Madre (ULM) Fisheries Management team, and Dr. David McKee, former TAMU-CC professor.

When asked about the origins of the program, Dr. McKee recalled it began when Kyle Spiller expressed interest in having interns during the busy summer sampling periods. Having been a biologist for Coastal Fisheries, Dr. McKee knew what would be expected of an intern and suggested sending exemplary students from his undergraduate marine science classes to be evaluated by Coastal Fisheries staff for the position. Through CCA Texas, Dr. McKee was able to secure funding for a three-month period and thus the sponsored internship program was born.

“The internship program was and is a win-win-win-win,” exclaimed McKee, “for CCA, the university, the student, and TPWD. Long live the Program!”

The purpose of the program is to provide opportunity for undergraduate students to gain hands-on experience to strengthen their resumes. Even before the internship begins the interview process itself provides valuable experience for students, many of whom may have never participated in a professional interview before. Interns who work with the Coastal Fisheries Management teams get boat-handling, maintenance, and repair experience. Many interns come from a background of little boating experience so having a team of seasoned captains coaching them translates into confidence navigating our unique bay systems. Aside from boating, interns become very familiar with a wide variety of sampling gears; bag seines, oyster dredges, gill nets, and trawls. More importantly, interns learn the science behind the sampling methods and how the data collected is used to direct management decisions.

Following in Spiller’s footsteps, Faye Grubbs, current ULM Ecosystem Leader, has been assisting with the program more than a decade. In that time she has witnessed the transformation of many young professionals, from wide-eyed, eager interns becoming skilled technicians.

“After assisting with the program for the past eleven years, I always enjoy day one of the internship,” states Faye, “seeing these students show up with a backpack on their shoulder and wearing fresh outdoor apparel, transition from hours of classroom lectures to getting covered in fish slime and sunscreen. Our TPWD staff do a remarkable job of mentoring these interns and taking them under their wings. By the end of twelve weeks they become fully-functioning team members, significantly contributing during our busiest months of the year. These moments really make me appreciate the vision of the program founders and all the varied contributors along the way.”

Since its inception, the sponsored internship program has grown from one intern working with the ULM Fisheries Management team to interns working with all eight fisheries management teams along the entire coast. In 2015, the program expanded to Ecosystem Resources Protection (ERP) and the Science and Policy branches. Two years later the Enhancement branch added two summer intern positions. In more recent years, the program has grown even more to include intern positions for the Habitat Assessment Team, Artificial Reef Program, Coastal Outreach, Trip Ticket Program, and Genetics and Life History studies.

The tremendous growth of the program is reflective of the generosity of the sponsors. Contributors over the years have included CCA, Mr. and Mrs. Big Trout Tournament, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Saltwater-fisheries Enhancement Association.

In 2021, CCA sponsored seventeen intern positions and over the past twenty years, 160 interns have been funded through CCA. This is equivalent to 76,800 hours of assistance and a total value of $1,040,000. Of the 160 interns, sixteen landed full-time jobs with TPWD, twelve are currently employed by TPWD, and several secured employment with other resource management agencies such as United States Fish and Wildlife Service, General Land Office, Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, as well as non-government agencies. Hats off to everyone involved in CCA for making this partnership possible. Your conservation dollars are hard at work every summer to improve our fisheries.

Credit and gratitude are also due the fiscal agents who ensure the program runs smoothly on the financial side. The Harte Research Institute at TAMU-CC served as the first fiscal agent and created a model for TAMU–Galveston and the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley to follow suit.

Personally, I am truly grateful for the TPWD-CF Sponsored Internship Program and its partners because I am one of the interns who obtained full-time employment with TPWD. I credit the program for much of my success. Don’t just take my word for it, though. Miguel Garcia, Fish and Wildlife Technician for the Brownsville Ecosystem team, was happy to report; “The internship program provided me with the unique opportunity to learn skills required to be a competitive candidate for joining the Texas Parks and Wildlife team. I applied to different positions along the Gulf Coast but I was lacking some essential skills. Through the internship I learned how to use and repair various sampling equipment and I gained experience navigating different sized vessels along the Lower Laguna Madre and the Gulf of Mexico. November 2021 will mark my sixth year working with Coastal Fisheries Division and I am more than happy to say that I love my job and appreciate the team I work with. I would like to thank CCA for the opportunity they provided through the sponsorship program and TPWD for trusting me to achieve my goals.”

Another success story is Aransas Bay’s Fish and Wildlife Technician, Jeremy McCulloch. Jeremy graciously shared; “My CCA funded internship with the TPWD Aransas Bay Field Station did more for me than just get my foot in the door. A large part of what it takes to be a competitive candidate in the field of biology is the hands-on experience of fieldwork, something usually not obtained on campus. For me, this was gained in the summer of 2018, when I realized that managing a resource for generations to enjoy was what I wanted to work towards. Now I am a part of the same team I started with in 2018, doing exactly that. I am forever grateful to CCA and the Aransas Bay team that mentored me.”

Lastly, Brian Bartram, Ecosystem leader for Corpus Christi Bay, rose through the ranks, having started as an intern with the ULM Fisheries Management team in 2004. Brian is a true testament to the success of the program.

“I fell in love with the work from day one,” Brian reminisced. “Working alongside the technicians and biologists that summer, I quickly realized that if I wanted to have a positive impact on natural resource management, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was where that goal would come to fruition. My CCA sponsored internship allowed me to establish professional relationships and also lifelong friendships that I maintain to the present day. I have now been working with the Department for sixteen years and I currently serve as an Ecosystem Leader for Corpus Christi Bay, alongside a team of dedicated biologists and professionals. I look forward each year to hosting a new CCA intern in this field office and I hope that they, too, will share the same passion for managing and conserving the vast marine resources of Texas.”

On behalf of TPWD Coastal Fisheries and all the participants, I would like to say a huge thank you to CCA for twenty years of funding. Their continued support of this life-changing program is an immense investment toward the sustainability of our beloved fisheries.