Sea turtle fascination led URI student to research in Mexico

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Warwick resident to graduate from URI May 18

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 5, 2008 – Warwick resident Monique LaFrance developed a passion for sea turtles as a child that only grew stronger when she entered the University of Rhode Island and discovered opportunities to study them.

Now, as she prepares to graduate from URI on May 18, she is looking forward to a marine biology career that will always keep her closely connected to these highly endangered creatures.

“I don’t know what it is about turtles, but I’ve just loved them my entire life,” LaFrance said with enthusiasm. “I begged my parents to let me have a pet turtle since I was in fifth grade, and last year I finally got one.”

Her drive to study sea turtles was initially fulfilled in 2006 when she spent a semester studying at the School for Field Studies along the west coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico.

“It was an absolutely amazing experience,” said LaFrance, whose twin sister Giselle graduated from URI a year ago. “We were based in Puerto San Carlos, a small fishing community along a coastal inlet called Magdalena Bay in the middle of nowhere. We tagged green turtles throughout the night. We would leave at 6 p.m. to set up our entanglement nets, and then we checked the nets in shifts every two hours. When we caught a turtle, we brought it up on the boat, took measurements, collected a DNA sample, and then let it go.”

She said the researchers she worked with used the data to learn more about the health and distribution of the turtle population in the region. When she wasn’t doing fieldwork, she took classes on coastal biology, ethical issues in science, and marine conservation, and she occasionally visited school classrooms to teach children about sea turtles.

“In Mexico, turtles are heavily hunted, so we tried to emphasize the importance of conserving them,” she said.

Lafrance’s undergraduate years at URI weren’t entirely focused on sea turtles, however. She also worked for several semesters in collaboration with oceanography professor John King to create maps of the various habitats in Point Judith Pond.

“The pond has so many uses – fishing, ferries, diving, swimming, wind surfing — all of which have to be managed with a scientifically sound approach in order to protect the health of the pond and its habitats for the future,” LaFrance explained. “So we used an acoustic imaging device called an interferometric sonar to map the habitats. Now we’re trying to see if the habitats have a consistent signature in the images from one pond to another, which would make it easy to rapidly identify and assess changes to habitats as time goes on.”

Along the way LaFrance received several awards and scholarships and was inducted into honor societies recognizing her academic achievements. She also worked at the URI Office of Marine Programs at the Graduate School of Oceanography helping to coordinate marine science outreach activities, including projects related to the research expeditions of famed marine explorer and URI Professor Robert Ballard.

Lafrance’s latest achievement occurred in April when she presented a scientific poster at an international conference on benthic ecology.

Following graduation, the URI student intends to take a year off before enrolling in graduate school. In the meantime, she will continue conducting research in King’s lab at the Graduate School of Oceanography.

“I want to take the time to decide exactly what I want to do and where I want to go,” she said. “Maybe I’ll end up in Texas or North Carolina or Florida for grad school, because turtles nest on the beaches there. Or maybe back to Mexico. Wherever I end up, I’ll be spending a lot of time on the water.”