Our diamondback terrapin Kitty loves hanging out with Stephanie

​You may see Marine Discovery Center intern Stephanie Schmidt pushing large barrels of salt water to the exhibition area or caring for the animals that reside in the tanks.

Stephanie learned at the elbow of former MDC aquarist Charity Jackson and has had to step up with more responsibility following Charity’s departure. Stephanie works two to three days a week at MDC and keeps a watchful eye on the health and diets of the animals here.

Read more about Stephanie in MDC’s May 2021 Volunteer Spotlight interview with staff writer Lisa Mickey:

​Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Minnesota and lived there for 10 years. My parents divorced, so we moved back down to San Antonio, where my mom is from. I stayed in Texas through high school and then I went to a community college for two years before moving out to California, where I went to San Diego State University. I was out there for about two years. That’s where I met my former husband. He was in the military, so that’s when we moved to Florida, where he was from. I finished up college on the west coast of Florida. We had a baby and then we divorced last year, in 2020.

Q: What did you study in school?
A: I graduated in 2015 with a bachelor of science degree in oceanography from the University of West Florida.

Q: You are pretty tall. Did you play any sports in high school or college?
A: No, but I was student council president in high school in San Antonio. I was also a member of the National Honor Society, served on the prom committee and I was involved in a neighborhood program that did community activities.

Q: Growing up in Texas, can you ride a horse?
A: [Laughter] No. I belong in the water! I can swim pretty well, but no horses.

Q: Are you back in school now, working or what?
A: I took time off because I have a family. I have a 4-year-old daughter, so now I’m giving myself a chance to start a career. We live in East Palatka, which is about one hour and 15 minutes away from MDC.

Q: How did you start volunteering?
A: I started working in this internship in December 2020 and I’ll be here until they kick me out!

Q: How did you get involved at MDC?
A: My boyfriend’s uncle used to work here. His name is Mark Spradley and he was here for a number of years. MDC was advertising the internship position and my boyfriend sent me the information and told me to apply for it, so I did.

Q: What are your duties at MDC?
A: I do mostly aquarist duties, cleaning tanks, feeding the animals and taking care of our baby seahorses. That’s like a full-time job because there are seven tanks of seahorses, plus the adults and the dwarf seahorses. They take a lot of time. The barrels I push around are full of salt water, so I get my workout in. I push those barrels to the exhibit area and pull out the dirty water and replace it with the new salt water.

Q: Do you work in other places?
A: Not right now. I was a seventh-grade science teacher before I came here, so I saved up some money to do this while I’m job-hunting.

Q: Why do you want to do this internship?
A: My passion has always been the ocean. I remember telling my dad in the third grade that I wanted to work with dolphins and he said, “Oh, you want to be a marine biologist.” So, it just went from there. We would go on family beach trips down to Texas every year, so I learned that was my therapy – just getting my feet in the sand and into waves. Once I learned more about pollution and plastics and what was needed to help save the ocean, that’s what really drove me. My dream job would be in research — like working with microplastics or oyster recycling. Really, anything where I can get my feet wet.

Q: It sounds like your dad was a solid influence on your interest in the natural world.
A: It was about becoming educated. My dad is a firm believer in protecting nature and conserving it and being respectful of all animals. I definitely had those values growing up. And the ocean – there’s so much unknown about it. We seem to know more about space than we do about the ocean. I want to be a part of that exploration.

Q: How did Charity help you learn this job at MDC?
A: She’s been my Yoda because she’s so knowledgeable in every aspect of aquarist duties. This is my first opportunity to be in an aquarium setting and to try to figure out how tanks and salt-water processes operate.

Q: What has been the most challenging part of this internship?
A: Probably getting everything done. It’s a lot of work compacted into the two days that I am usually here, but I love it.

Q: In your case, volunteering helps you gain experience doing something you need in your future career. How has this opportunity helped you the most?
A: I don’t like to do jobs that I don’t feel qualified for and I have high expectations of myself. I’ve learned so much here that I can take with me, ranging from understanding the water systems to taking care of animals and learning about their diets and which animals live well together.

Q: Caring for the animals at MDC is probably the fun part, but you are also problem-solving with leaking tanks and daily surprises, too.
A: We’re always problem-solving. We had to come up with an engineering process in the back of the lionfish tank because the lionfish was spitting water out of the tank. It’s about being on your feet and rolling with the punches.

Q: Had you ever had any aquarium experience before coming here?
A: I had a personal tank at home, but because I’m passionate about it, I think it just comes easily. I like learning about pumps and figuring things out.

Q: Do you want to teach again?
A: I like education, but I’d rather do something more direct in leaving a mark on the planet. I know it’s good to educate the next generation so they can do something about it, but I’m more geared toward what I can do right now.

Q: I know you are a mom, but do you have time for any hobbies?
A: I like to bake and I’m a cake artist. I enjoy making fondant and decorating cakes. It was a family business, so I’m a good baker.

Q: I know you are a mom, but do you have time for any hobbies?
I like to bake and I’m a cake artist. I enjoy making fondant and decorating cakes. It was a family business, so I’m a good baker.

Q: How do you feel about contributing to MDC’s mission in the community?
A: I love our mission here and I think it’s really important to teach others about our planet and what they can do to conserve and protect. That’s what I’m going to teach my daughter, too. I want to get our community involved because this is our backyard that we’re talking about. Living in Florida, everybody loves water activities, so it’s important to make sure we keep up the health of these bodies of water.


One of Stephanie's duties is taking Kitty for walks

​Q: What has been the highlight of volunteering at MDC?
A: There are so many things. I love being on the MDC Discovery boat and using the trawl net. I love seeing the seahorses being born. And it’s kind of exciting to carefully stick my hand into the lionfish tank to clean it! Nothing bad has happened, but to think that I’m closer to a lionfish than I’ve ever been in my life is pretty amazing.

Q: What do you want to be your role in helping the next generation do the right things in the environment?
A: I’ve always wanted to be able to say something that just sparks them. I think my original way of learning about the environment was to reduce, reuse and to recycle and how I could do that at home. I think it’s important to give kids something they can do right now to help.

Q: So, what is your takeaway from this internship experience?
A: I’m just glad that MDC exists and that I was given this opportunity. It’s been amazing. I love the staff here and I love having the ability here to do something that I truly love.