Current Graduate Students

Abbey Dias

I’m broadly interested in kelp forest ecology and combining science with film to promote conservation. Originally from Seattle, Washington, I’m happiest underwater exploring the temperate coastline. In 2020, I graduated from Whitman College having completed research projects studying coral reef biodiversity and deep-sea fish physiology and anatomy. I joined the Hughes Lab as a research technician and plan to continue my work as a MS student using applied ecological methods to inform large-scale restoration efforts of bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana).

Vini Souza

Vinicius (Vini) Souza is a first year master student in the Hughes marine ecology lab. As an avid surfer and and wave photographer, his love and passion for the ocean started at a very young age, and was influential in helping him pursue a career as a marine scientist. Vini transferred from Santa Rosa Junior College and received his B.S. in marine biology from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2019. As an AAUS certified scientific diver, he’s executed scientific research, marine fieldwork, and underwater surveys in Corsica, Monterey, Sonoma, and Mendocino. Currently in the Hughes lab, Vini is working on a large-scale kelp restoration project that aims to out plant juvenile bull kelp cultured at the Bodega Marine Laboratory at two sites along the Sonoma and Mendocino coast. His thesis focuses on the relationship between spawners and recruiters in red abalone, with hopes that it will aid in the modeling of protected areas for a species that’s been decimated by a cascade of anthropogenic and climatic factors. 

Maria Velazquez

I am a community ecologist interested in the role species interactions play in shaping the structure, function, and stability of nearshore marine ecosystems. I graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2019 with degree(s) in Environmental Studies and Sociology, and my undergraduate thesis investigated threshold density relationships between sea urchin density and algae cover in kelp forests along the Monterey Bay. After undergrad, I worked with CDFW and USFW surveying pelagic fish and salmon populations in the San Francisco-Bay Delta Estuary. My Master’s thesis will focus on assessing restoration response of bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana), along the California north coast to inform science and stakeholders on the capability of restoration of biodiversity and fisheries production. 

Alyssa Cooper

I am a second-year grad student broadly interested in fish ecology with a particular focus on elasmobranchs (sharks and rays). I completed my B.S. in Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2016 looking at the population density and prey preference of the Mediterranean moray eel. From field courses to AAUS scientific diving, I’ve found a passion in driving research projects and fieldwork that aim to understand the ecology of predatory fish. I have interned for NOAA and have worked for the Department of Water Resources and a fish ecology lab at U.C. Davis. My Master’s project focuses on the ecology of leopard sharks (Triakis semifasciata) within the Drakes Estero estuary in Point Reyes and why this particular habitat is such a hotspot for natal activity.

Julieta Gomez

I am a second-year graduate student in the Hughes Lab. I obtained my BS in Marine Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), where I did research on climate change effects on coralline algae from Sitka, Alaska. Prior to joining the Hughes Lab, I worked at the Heal the Bay Aquarium in Santa Monica. I worked closely with visitors and taught them about marine animals native to the Santa Monica Bay. My Master’s thesis focuses on purple urchin feeding preference of bull kelp life history stages. I am conducting SCUBA surveys and laboratory experiments to test temperature effects on bull kelp growth and purple urchin feeding preference. As a first-generation student, I hope to mentor other students with a passion for marine ecology and engage with the Sonoma County Community. 

Rachael Karm

Hello! I am Rachael and I am a master’s student in the Hughes Lab. Prior to becoming a Seawolf I received my B.S in Marine Biology from UC Santa Cruz. As an undergraduate I fell in love with both SCUBA diving and kayaking. Both of these experiences along with my classes further enhanced my passion for marine community ecology. Now, I am honored to be a part of a collaborative effort studying the Northern California bull kelp population. The bull kelp forests are diminishing and as a team we are looking at how temperature affects the growth throughout kelp life history stages and the possibility of reforestation. 

Current Undergrad Interns

Taylor Nelson

I’m currently an undergrad at Sonoma State majoring in biology and minoring in studio art.
Summer of ‘22 I’ve been working in the Hughes lab and I will be completing a research honors
thesis this upcoming school year. I’m interested in studying ocean salinity effects on urchin
grazing of kelp. Thanks to the grad students in the Hughes lab and their various projects and
research methods, my interests in ecology and restoration have greatly expanded. I hope to
pursue a career in research ecology.

Past Graduate Students

Jessica Saavedra

Hi, I’m Jessica Saavedra. I received my B.S (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Concentration) at Sonoma State. As an undergrad, I was involved in a couple of projects such as determining the effects of native food web structure on populations of the invasive European green crab, (Carcinus maenas), analyzing scat of the American badger (Taxidea taxus) to determine their diets, etc. As I got into my final year of undergrad, I grew a passion for marine conservation and ecology. My current research investigates how the recovery of sea otters (Enhydra lutris), affect their invertebrate prey within a seagrass (Zostera marina) ecosystem in southeast Alaska.

Joe Jackson

I am a community ecologist that is also interested in the roles that foundation and keystone species play in their environment. I specialize in coastal marine environments, most prominently in estuaries along with some experience in the rocky intertidal. I earned my B.S. at Sonoma State University looking at physiological responses to stressors in mussels, which is where I found my passion for coastal ecosystems. However, I knew my goal would be to pursue a career in ecology from the start. My Master’s project will be looking into how the presence of non-native species in estuarine ecosystems can impact the prey items and recovery speed of top predators (Enhydra lutris).

Maddy Sanchez

I received my B.S. in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Ecology from California State University San Marcos. As an undergraduate, I developed a passion for wildlife ecology and conservation while studying wildlife corridors in San Diego County. I am currently a first-year graduate student at Sonoma State University with interests in southern sea otter foraging behaviors. For my thesis project, I will be exploring predatory soundscapes and the ability of audio recorders to quantify southern sea otter predation on crabs in the Elkhorn Slough estuary (Monterey, CA). I hope to continue research and field work in wildlife ecology after completing my Masters.   

Past Undergraduate Students

Natasha Higuera

I am a fourth year undergraduate biology student. I have a concentration in ecology and evolution and have been focusing on the field marine ecology. Growing up on the Mendocino coast in California pushed me to want to know more about our ecosystems. The small town I come from is heavenly dependent on fisheries and tourism, two things that have to find a balance in order to be sustainable. My research is thus typically involving organisms or ecosystems that affect the public. Currently, my research is focused on kelp forests, primarily bull kelp. 

Luke Vanderkar

Hey! My name is Luke Vanderkar and I’m finishing up my Biology degree at Sonoma State University with a concentration in Marine Biology. I’m also a certified advanced scuba diver. My main interest is in marine mammals and their ecological interactions. I have an extensive passion for the ocean and am very excited to get out in the field and be able to contribute to sea otter recovery.

Byron Whittle

Hi I’m Byron and I am just finishing my degree in biology with a concentration in marine sciences. I have a passion for marine life and the different species interactions, both on the macro and micro scale. I am excited to join this team and explore the North Pacific intertidal, more specifically the predator prey relations that take place. Just grab a tank and get in the water to unveil the mysteries that await.