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Unlikely Path to a Career in Protecting the Ocean

Hannah Merges ’21

I have always felt a strong connection to the water. Despite that, I found myself choosing to study at a college located far away from the shore with no established marine science major. This choice was exactly the one I was meant to make because it has led me to become a PADI Divemaster and Research Coordinator for Utila Coral Restoration, pursuing a career in coral reef restoration research.

With its interdisciplinary degrees and close-knit community, Ursinus provided an environment for me to grow into a more confident and self-assured student, scientist, speaker, and thinker. I explored my various interests and built the skills necessary to excel in my desired field. Ursinus did not have a formal marine science program when I began my studies, however, after many long hours with my mentors, Drs. Leah Joseph, Richard Wallace, and Kathryn Goddard, I successfully published the very first marine science minor for the college, creating a curriculum that is now widely available to all future students. As someone who holds many interests, the opportunity to undertake an environmental studies major with minors in anthropology and marine science allowed me to explore how each of my academic interests connected with one another. Additionally, the core requirements ensured I took classes in biology, mathematics, English, education, Spanish, and a handful of other diverse subjects. Exploration of my goals and ambitions also happened in the lab, on the volleyball court, at my service sites, and in my jobs. I culminated my lab experience with a self-designed, year-long honors thesis during my senior year. Despite being hundreds of miles from any known reef, I was determined to study corals outside of the textbooks and hands-on in the lab. It was this commitment to pursuing my interests in coral ecology that landed me the job I currently have.

Hannah Merges '21


As I got more serious about pursuing a career in marine science, my research advisor, Dr. Kate Goddard, encouraged me to earn my scuba certification. At the time, earning my Open Water scuba certification in the murky waters of Dutch Springs, Penn., I did not comprehend just how many doors this would open. Followed by various summer internships and a semester abroad studying in Panama, I was eager to take the next step upon graduating. My desire to continue traveling led me to find an internship with Utila Coral Restoration based on the small island of Utila, located about 24 miles off the mainland of Honduras.

Embracing a year of changing plans, discomfort, new experiences, and some solo travel, I embarked on a journey that completely solidified my passion to be in the water and dedicate my life to protecting our oceans. Ursinus equipped me with the tools to make this transition possible and to think critically about the work I was doing in this internship and about my role within the community. Over the course of nine weeks, I learned the entire process of coral reef restoration, from installing and populating new nursery structures to maintaining, cleaning, and monitoring existing ones. I out planted successful fragments back onto the reef and partook in reef health assessment surveys at dive sites around the island. I was also formally trained to repair and restore reefs after tropical storms.

After my internship ended, I returned home, but it was not long before I bought a plane ticket back to Utila with the intention of earning my PADI Divemaster certification, a professional level of scuba diving that requires about 4-6 weeks of training. Upon completing this certification, I was offered a job with Utila Coral Restoration as their new Research Coordinator, leading the internship program and coordinating volunteer efforts for events such as coral spawning monitoring. Soon I will be leaving for my next adventure, which is attending California State University Northridge to earn my master’s in marine biology, studying the effects of groundwater discharge on the coral reef ecosystem in Moorea, French Polynesia.

Hannah Merges '21

Entering Ursinus my freshman year, I was not sure what my path would be, but I didn’t expect it to be living on a tiny island in the Caribbean scuba diving every day as my job, so to think about what possibilities are ahead is incredibly exciting. I am grateful for my time as a Bear and for all those in my support system who helped me get to where I am currently. During my time at Ursinus, I discovered my passions and set goals for the type of meaningful impact I want to make and from there, started creating the life that I want to live for myself. And it is only the beginning.

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