Emma introduces children to our exhibits

Sometimes she’s pushing around very large barrels of water or you might see Marine Discovery Center aquarist intern Emma Eagney feeding the animals in our tanks. It’s all a part of the job for this senior University of Central Florida environmental science major.

And while this is an internship, Emma, 20, has a long history of caring for saltwater fish tanks at home, as well as a menagerie of animals that share space at her house. Read more about Emma in MDC’s November 2021 Intern Spotlight interview with staff writer Lisa D. Mickey:

Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Maryland and I lived there and in Virginia until we moved to Florida when I was 3. I grew up in Edgewater.

Q: How did you decide to study environmental sciences at UCF?
A: My dad is an engineer, so I was always interested in that. I went to UCF and originally intended to go into engineering, but I started taking electives and learning about different things. I was trying to decide between environmental engineering and environmental science and I decided that environmental science was a little broader and that I would have more options in my career. I dual-enrolled while I was at Spruce Creek High School, so when I graduated, I had an associate college degree. I took a lot of math and science at Daytona State College. By the time I got to UCF, I mainly had to take whatever electives I had for a major. I’ll graduate from UCF in December after two years there.

Q: How did you take an interest in salt-water fish and their care?
A: My parents have always been into different animals. They actually met at a pet store. It’s been an on-going thing that’s been a part of their relationship. Then they had three kids and raised them with all of their animals. Growing up, we had geckos and my sister had an iguana. We’ve also always had three rescue dogs at a time. Right now, my parents have three dogs, one cat, a Koi pond in the back, turtles come and go, a tortoise, a crested gecko, and four fish tanks. There’s also a Beta fish and one tank with snails and a little tank for bait fish, which is used as food for the 200-gallon salt-water tank with angel fish and coral.

Q: What is it about tanks and fish and all of these critters that appeal to you?
A: I think it’s really cool to learn about the right conditions the tanks need to be in. Every tank is different. And it was always something that bonded me with my parents. On the weekends, we would do tank water changes together. It sounds boring, but it was fun.

Q: Let’s go back to that pet store where your parents met. What was that about?
A: My dad worked in a pet store and my mom got a job there. They were young when they met and they had me when they were 22. They eloped and came to Florida, liked it here and stayed. My dad is from Bowie, Md., and my mom is from Stafford, Va.

Q: Fast forward to your high school years. Were you involved with science studies at Spruce Creek High?
A: In high school, I did the IB program [International Baccalaureate] for a year before I switched to dual-enrollment. IB is more structured with the classes you take and in dual-enrollment, you can choose the electives you take while getting an associate degree. At Daytona State, I took classes in oceanography. We would go to the YMCA and our teacher, Dr. Deb Woodall, would throw items into the pool and we would have to build tools to go retrieve them. It was a really good class. I also took classes in environmental science and math.

Q: Did you go to Rose Bay with your classmates at Spruce Creek High and learn about this ecosystem with teacher Louise Chapman?
A: Yes, we went there and learned to use the seine net. A lot of our learning was with us being in the water and doing a lot of hands-on stuff.

Q: Did it help to have grown up in Florida?
A: Yes and no. My grandma loves to collect and identify shells. She would buy us books to teach us about the different shells and the animals that lived in them. That’s one of the reasons why I got into it in high school and college – so I could learn more. And now, if I’m out with my friends and they say, “That’s a cool animal,” I can tell them what they are. My dad was very excited when I sent him pictures of our terrapins at MDC because he went to the University of Maryland. He is a Terp. [Laughter]

Q: When did your internship start at MDC and why did you want to do this?
A: It started at the beginning of May and was supposed to have ended this summer, but then I decided to carry it over because I was enjoying it and learning so much. I’ve actually been coming to the Marine Discovery Center since I was in elementary school. I came to summer camp for a year and I also went to the Smyrna Yacht Club Camp when I was 10. They used to take us on boat tours at MDC. I remember coming here with my family to look at the tanks when I was little.

Q: You are an aquarist intern at MDC, but haven’t you also done some other things here?
A: I was also a summer camp intern and helped out with the summer camps. I was here five days a week during the summer months with camp and the aquarist duties.

Q: How does this fit in with what you are learning in your college classes?
A: I was in animal behavior classes over the summer and we talked a lot about corn snakes. We have a corn snake here at MDC and I have a corn snake at home. I also learned about techniques fish use when they’re breeding and the different ways they take care of their babies, as well as the ones that eat their babies. We also learned a lot about seahorses and how the male is the pregnant one. Now, I’m in a class called “Florida Ecology, Natural History and Wildlife” and we’re learning a lot about marshes and mangrove ecosystems. I feel like I’m always learning things I can share with others.

Q: How do you think this internship will help you after you graduate?
A: It’s always good to gain the professional skill set of any job. It’s hard to just put on your resume that you have a salt-water tank at your house, so it’s nice to have done it in a professional setting. Also, a lot of the conservation science things that [MDC staff members] Tess [Sailor-Tynes] and Jessy [Wayles] do, I’ve been trying to learn from them. Environmental science is so broad that if I decide to go into an environmental technician’s role, such as testing soil or water samples or working with microplastics, I can at least have a little bit of background in it.

Q: Are there any special challenges at a place like MDC?
A: We have a terrapin in the back education office that has shell rot, so [lead aquarist] Tess [Barnard] and I both are learning how to treat it. It’s always challenging to put that to use for the first time. We can see how much the terrapin has improved, just from a few of our treatments. It feels good after you have learned a new skill and put it to the test and the animal is progressing. The veterinarian comes in periodically to inspect the terrapin and there will be at least one more round of antibiotics for her. We hope she can be introduced to Kitty [MDC’s diamondback terrapin in the Welcome Center tank] eventually.

Q: Have you had a highlight while working here at MDC?
A: I like learning new stuff, so it’s nice to be at a place where sometimes, a corn snake comes to the center without warning and we have to set up a whole new tank habitat. I like learning how to put things together on the spot. I feel like that will help me in the future. This is the first internship I’ve done and the staff here is amazing. It was nerve-racking coming into it, but the staff is so helpful. I feel like I can ask whatever questions I have.

Q: You are not a physically large young woman and you have to push around very large barrels of water when you work with the tanks. How is that going?
A: The barrels can hold up to 35 gallons of water. One day this summer, we had been cleaning up after summer camp and the camp tables were all over the place in the Learning Lab. The wheels underneath the barrels are not attached, so if you hit something, the wheels can skid and the barrel comes off. If you can’t catch the barrel, it’s gone. So yeah, that happened. The barrel spilled and water went everywhere. The good thing is, it happened right beside the drain.

Q: So, your main duties here are to feed the animals, oversee their habitats, clean the water in the tanks and monitor the water quality?
A: Yes, and there’s new stuff all the time, such as caring for sick or injured animals. We’re also training new interns.

Q: How long does your internship last?
Probably when I graduate at the end of December. Right now, I’m here three to four days a week.

Q: What have you learned at MDC that has been beneficial?
A: Just how strong the conservation message is here and how much everyone cares about it. It’s nice to see the passion that everyone has here. Even our eco-tour guides are at least Florida Coastal Naturalists, so they know what’s going on. Everyone is very committed to protecting the environment.

Q: Has there been a highlight for you here?
A: Everything is a highlight to me, but really, just learning new stuff. It’s nice to have Eco the corn snake here. I take him out of his tank and hang out with the snake all day. And Biscuit [the resident baby gopher tortoise] is pretty cute. He’s shy, but he’s young. I’m excited to build a little outdoor enclosure for him when he gets bigger. He’ll like that.

Emma bonds with Eco the corn snake

Q: What do you want to do in 2022?
A: I don’t know yet. I’ve been looking at some different aquariums. There’s Discovery Cove in Orlando, the Clearwater Aquarium and Marine Land in St. Augustine – all places where I can get some experience. I don’t need to stay in Florida, so I’m open to moving wherever I need to go to work. Everything is kind of open.

Q: What kind of hobbies do you have now?
A: I live with my boyfriend and we have two cats, a corn snake, a hamster, two finches, a crested gecko and a Beta fish. So, I take care of my animals, but we also go to a lot of nature parks, like the Spruce Creek Preserve, and just explore nature trails. We both played high school soccer, so if we have a chance, we’ll kick around a soccer ball, but we don’t have a ton of time. We met at Asian Garden Fusion, a restaurant in New Smyrna Beach where I used to work.

Q: How do you feel about being a part of the conservation, education and protection of the Indian River Lagoon and our coastal ecosystem?
A: I’ve always wanted to be involved in something like this and it’s nice that I finally have concrete connections to it. I’ve done smaller things, like the International Coastal Cleanup, so it’s nice to be around a whole community of employees and volunteers who put their efforts toward one cause. I’m glad that I’m a part of it and that I can help out.

Q: How much do you feel committed to do something to help our environment?
A: I think the next generation will care even more. We have learned a lot and now we know what past generations did wrong. We are on track to try to fix it. It’s easier for my generation and the generation after me to look at the facts and put the pieces together to do everything we can to reverse some of the processes that have been taking place for a long time.

Emma teaches in the marsh during summer camp