Profile: Christie Wilcox

Christie Wilcox is now passionate toward conservation biology, although she didn’t originally start off that way. While she always had an affinity to nature and animals, she didn’t realize that she wanted to be a biologist until she “stumbled” upon it in college. “When I’m at the beach and everyone is running away from jellyfish, I get excited and run up closer to check it out!”

Wilcox began at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a double major in physics and marine biology. After her first semester, Christie decided that the more advanced math that physics required was not for her, so she dropped physics and continued with her major in marine biology. Once Christie became more involved in marine biology, she realized that she wanted to focus more on cells and how they function, and their inter-relationships to the whole animal.

During her sophomore year at Eckerd College, Wilcox approached her mentor, Dr. Nancy Smith, to get involved in one of her projects. Smith had previously worked with fiddler crabs and was studying its impact on mangroves in the area. Together, Wilcox and her mentor designed a research project. Shortly thereafter, Christie was out sloshing through the mangrove marshes. Their research consisted of two studies. In the first, a transect study, the mangroves were left alone and every couple of weeks their trunk diameters were measured and leaves were counted. Wilcox statistically examined the number of crab burrows and plants in the area and their affect on the mangroves. The second study consisted of a manipulation experiment and was more hands-on as mesh cages without tops were built to prevent crabs from getting into the area. Wilcox got her hands dirty as she dug up every plant around the mangroves, built the meter by meter cage 25 cm into the ground, and removed any crabs within the caged area. In the other experimental condition, the crabs were not restricted from the mangroves. Wilcox sought to determine how the crabs affected plant growth and its soil chemistry.

“Fieldwork in Florida’s heat is no picnic,” says Wilcox, who spent hours outdoors digging in the sand and the sun. It also contained some inherent dangers. During one exhausting day of digging cages, Wilcox tuned around and found herself within 10 feet of a 15-foot alligator sunning himself. “I remember crawling back to my car as slowly as possible… As far as I could tell he had no interest in eating me – he was just getting comfortable. It found a big patch of sandy, plant-free soil right where I was working. That’s field work in Florida for you!”

Wilcox became a published author in July of 2009 when her study was published in the journal Marine Biology. The study found that fiddler crabs have a marked effect on the mangroves growth rate, as well as some factors in the soil. When the crabs were present, the soil was more oxygenated and had a lower salinity, which made it easier for the mangroves to grow. Those mangroves became taller, thicker, and bushier. In short, more crabs meant healthier and happier mangroves.

Upon graduating from Eckerd in 2007 with a degree in marine science with a concentration in biology, Wilcox worked as a research assistant in Dr. Stuart Critz’s lab at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM). Dr. Critz’s lab studies heart cells, particularly focusing on their adenosine pathways. Wilcox was involved in experiments studying the effects of A2B receptor stimulation on survival kinases. A2B receptors are one of 4 types of adenosine receptors located in the heart and have not been studied as intensely as the others. Western blots were the primary methodology being utilized. They found that the A2B receptor typically promoted survival pathways.

Wilcox has just begun her PhD program in cell and molecular biology at University of Hawaii. The program requires her to complete three lab rotations prior to selecting her project. She is studying avian genetics in Hawaii’s native bird population for her first rotation.

As a conservation biologist, Wilcox’s goal is to use cellular and molecular technique to protect endangered or threatened species. “I want to have a conservation edge to whatever I end up doing. I figure its sort of giving back to the nature that I’ve loved and has given so much to me for so long.” While she definitely wants to have research as a significant role in her career, Wilcox says she would probably enjoy teaching and would consider being the professor who also participates in research. “But,” she adds, “I also see myself working for a conservation organization and being very happy about it as well.”