Entering the last semester of your senior year forces you to face a number of unknowns, the biggest one being “what will I do after graduation.” For me, the answer itself was easy. I would go to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. in marine chemistry, with a focus on how marine chemistry is coupled with microbial ecology.

I have always set high expectations for myself and pushed myself to achieve personal goals. One of those goals was to present my senior honors thesis research at a major international conference, specifically the Aquatic Sciences meeting held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this February. Although I knew I wanted to present, there were a number of unknowns within this goal, such as how to navigate a major conference by myself, as an undergraduate with few academic connections, and how others would react to my research. With these unknowns came fear, mostly from the possibility of not meeting expectations, even though I had set most of them myself. It took me until after the conference to realize I was projecting my fears of my uncertain future, as I’m still not sure where I will be attending graduate school.

This was the first time in my life I was afraid to get on a plane without knowing what was awaiting me on the other side. Despite being at the forefront of an amazing opportunity, I was terrified of the potential outcomes. I learned, just as I had with a handful of other incredible circumstances, that things work out in wonderful ways.

I was selected to give a poster presentation on my senior thesis research, entitled “The impacts of urban dissolved organic matter on coastal chemistry and bacterioplankton composition.” Essentially, my project examined how different sources of organic carbon consumed by bacteria impact their respective community composition, and what roles extreme weather events play in these interactions (i.e. if they increase the amount of anthropogenically-sourced carbon into tidal creeks, change community composition or activity, et cetera). There were approximately 35 sessions, or specific categories for talks, and then there were roughly 5-10 talks per session, plus at least several poster presentations as well. The anxiety of how I was going to fit into all of that was overwhelming. The feedback I received on my presentation, however, was all positive and supportive.

An additional part of the conference was organized community outreach events in and around San Juan, to give back to the people who hosted us for a week and to continue to help them recover from the devastating Hurricane Maria that hit two years ago. I participated by snorkeling in and around mangrove keys and cleaning up trash as a part of project through the University of Puerto Rico’s Department of Marine Sciences to collect and catalog the pollution in these keys every month. This is a part of NOAA’s Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project, which is an international collaboration to target marine pollution. We cleaned up over thirty pounds of trash, ranging from bottle caps and plastic straws to part of a lawn chair and old fishing gear that had become entangled in the mangrove roots. I am incredibly grateful that I got to partake in such an opportunity and experience the unique mangrove forests and submarine environments up close, while also working to help keep them clean.

Not only was this experience impactful in that it allowed me to meet with potential Ph.D. advisors and attend their presentations, but it also increased my experience presenting my research, explaining my results, and improved my self-confidence in my public speaking abilities as well as in myself to navigate situations that are outside of my comfort zone.

Being awarded the Enrichment Fund in conjunction with a travel grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) gave me the opportunity to challenge and push myself, even when ultimately I was the one standing in my own way. This experience helped prepare me for both the next step after graduation and the unknowns that accompany it.