An interview with Maria Wojakowski

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with Maria Wojakowski, a doctoral candidate in biology at Stanford. View her project, called “Tracing the route of the green sea turtle in Peru.”

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research interests.

Highly migratory marine animals have always been fascinating to me because we see so little of their travels.  Sea turtles are a particularly good example.  Scientists monitor female sea turtles that come onto beaches to nest and watch the hatchlings emerge and run off into the ocean.  At that point, though, the life of a turtle becomes a mystery.  We currently lack the technology to follow a hatchling from the time it leaves the beach to the time it reaches a foraging area as a juvenile, and we are just starting to learn about the movements of juveniles.  Research that focuses on learning about sea turtle migrations and movements is absolutely necessary to ensure their survival.  Since most sea turtle species are in danger of extinction, I am very interested in learning as much as possible about their movements so we can protect them.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?

I always loved animals, but I grew up in Brooklyn in New York City, where wildlife is not very common.  When I was around eight years old, we started to see people selling hatchling turtles on the street.  I was awestruck when I saw the little buckets filled with hatchlings swimming in a frenzy.  When my mom finally let me bring one home, I started doing some research.  I found out that these turtles were invasive and that they should never have been in New York City.  I became interested in the way humans and animals interact, and why human activity leads to the decline of animal populations so often.  I think this was my first inspiration for pursuing conservation biology.

Q: Why did you decide to post your project on Petridish?  

I was fortunate to have spent time working with ProCaguama, an organization that works with fishing communities in Baja, Mexico to decrease sea turtle bycatch, or incidental capture in fishing gear.  The experience revolutionized the way I thought about science and conservation.  Often scientists are pictured as solitarily working in their “ivory tower.”  In ProCaguama, scientists work hand in hand with fishermen and the whole community to save sea turtles.  Everyone could help, from the smallest child to the eldest fishermen, and it was inspiring to see how much more could be accomplished with the help of the community.  After all, this is our world we are trying to save.  It only makes sense that we involve all of its citizens.  This is why I posted my project on Petridish, to stay true to that philosophy and provide the opportunity for the greater global community to get involved in conservation.

Q: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve found in your
research so far?

There have been a number of more scientific surprises, but I think the most shocking discovery in the process of getting this research started is how incredibly powerful sea turtles are in the water.  We always see turtles portrayed as “slow and steady” but this is certainly not the case!  We need to handle and often catch the turtles to take samples and tag them, and you find out very quickly that you need to be a pretty good athlete to keep up with these guys in the water!

Q: What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you in the

Catching more turtles than expected!  There is nothing like having a boat full of turtles crawling around creating chaos.  No matter how hard or fast you try to work, they step all over papers and knock things over, like having a bunch of kids running around your living room.  There is nothing to do but sit back and laugh!

To read more about Maria’s research, ask questions or back her work, view the project page:

Tracing the route of the green sea turtle in Peru

Sea turtles are the ancient mariners of our oceans.  After hatching on a beach, they cross thousands of miles of ocean to reach areas with food. Yet, little is known about where these green sea turtles go and how they migrate.


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