From the Sarteneja Peninsula in Belize to the coastal city of Perth, Australia, Stephanie Wenclawski ‘16 has demonstrated her commitment to the study of marine sciences. Her international volunteer work with oceanic wildlife coupled with outreach efforts as both a Park Scholarships and University Ambassador have already primed Wenclawski to be a leader in her field.
According to Wenclawski, who hails from landlocked Iowa, it all began during childhood trips to Chicago’s John G. Shedd Aquarium.
“I still remember being mesmerized by the large fish, turtles, sharks, and rays swimming around in their central Caribbean reef exhibit,” Wenclawski said. “From that first spark of interest my passion for marine sciences has not changed. To me, marine science is about protecting our beautiful oceans and all of the amazing creatures that are found in them.”
A decade later, Wenclawski is pursuing her degree in marine sciences at NC State, where day by day she gains the knowledge to understand marine creatures, how they interact, and how to protect them in the future. Service and research opportunities in Central America and Australia have expanded her understanding of our ocean’s diverse needs.
During spring break in 2013, Wenclawski traveled to Costa Rica with the University Scholars Program to explore the country’s varied sustainability and conservation initiatives – in some cases, from atop a whitewater raft or peering down from a rainforest zip line.
Following her visit to Costa Rica, Wenclawski spent a summer interning with Wildtracks, a manatee and primate rehabilitation center in Sarteneja, Belize. There she worked with a neotropical river otter and two Western Indian manatees, who she monitored and bottle-fed as part of the rehabilitation process.
This experience had its challenges. To ensure the animals’ safety, Wildtracks prohibited the use of insect repellent and sunscreen. This resulted in sunburn and countless mosquito bites for Wenclawski, whose living quarters were without running water. But Wenclawski found that the benefits the internship afforded far outweighed these inconveniences.
“A great feeling stems from gaining the trust of a river otter to follow you out into the lagoon for swims,” she said. “The hands-on experience I gained with marine mammals is something I have always dreamed of.”
Wenclawski decided to take her interests down under during the fall 2014 semester by studying abroad at the University of Western Australia in Perth. She cites this as one of the best decisions of her undergraduate career, as the experience yielded close friendships with individuals from all over the world and allowed her to work on a research project unlike any she had pursued in the past.
“I volunteered with the Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife to ground truth data from a major sea grass die-off that occurred in Shark Bay a few years ago,” said Wenclawski. “This opportunity introduced me to some amazing scientists and allowed me to research in a different environment.”
Wenclawski, who documented highlights of her time in Australia in a blog for NC State’s Study Abroad Office, will continue to expand upon her international adventures this spring, as she recently set sail with the Semester at Sea program.
Wenclawski attributes most of her experiential learning opportunities to the Park Scholarships program, as it is what brought her to NC State. “Being an ambassador for both the Park Scholarships program and the university allows me to reflect on how fortunate I am to have found NC State,” she said.
Her fellow Park Scholars have also fostered Wenclawski’s enthusiasm for service. As a co-chair for Service Raleigh 2014, Wenclawski and her peers motivated others to engage in service efforts and establish community connections.
“Being able to rally almost 2,000 volunteers together on one day to perform service in our community was so important to me,” said Wenclawski.
As to her future in marine sciences, Wenclawski is open to possibility. While she is contemplating educational or husbandry roles at an aquarium, she also hopes to contribute to world hunger solutions in some capacity. Her already vast experiences across the globe will likely lead her to a career that combines her interests.
“I have thought a lot about helping small fishing villages around the world to maintain sustainable catch limits to be able to feed their communities in a time when fish populations are rapidly declining,” Wenclawski said. “Whatever career I end up in, I aspire to make a difference in the lives of those I work with.”
Story by Lauren Vanderveen