JOBOS BAY, Puerto Rico — While her time spent on the university’s campus has been brief, the way Jessica Tipton has used connections within the Clemson family to achieve her educational goals are a shining example of the opportunities that abound for Clemson students beyond the northwest corner of South Carolina.

Jessica Tipton takes notes in mangrove forest.

Clemson Ph.D. student Jessica Tipton, shown here working in a mangrove forest in Puerto Rico, was recently awarded an inaugural Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Estuarine Research Reserve program.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Tipton was recently awarded an inaugural Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Estuarine Research Reserve program, a two-year fellowship program for one graduate student at each of the 29 reserves in the U.S.

In Tipton’s case, that means continuing her studies in picturesque Jobos Bay, Puerto Rico — the latest stop on an educational journey that has taken her from the Carolina Lowcountry to a set of reef-fringed mangrove islands extending westward from the southern tip of the mouth of Jobos Bay, though rarely to Clemson’s physical campus.

“I’m not your traditional student in that sense, where I spend a lot of time on campus,” she said, “so I’ve taken some online classes through the Master of Wildlife and Fisheries Resources program and then some classes at Baruch. I just love being at Baruch. It’s beautiful and such a fun atmosphere.”

The Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science is a Clemson research outpost on the 16,000-acre Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown, S.C., where Tipton’s Clemson experience began under co-advisers Dan Hitchcock and Stefanie Whitmire. The Baruch Institute is one of six Clemson Research and Education Centers strategically located throughout the state and tasked with tackling problems related to agriculture and natural resources.

But even her time on that extension of Clemson’s campus has been minimal. Tipton worked as an educator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in Charleston when she began to build her Clemson connection’s through BICEFS-based research scientist Thomas Rainwater, who in turn connected her with Hitchcock, Whitmire and Baruch Institute Director Skip Van Bloem.

“I worked with and partnered with Clemson a lot (while working for SCDNR), and I always had the best relationships with all of the groups from Clemson that I worked with,” she said. “So, when it came time for me to go back to school, it really just made sense. I thought, ‘These are really great people. This is where I want to pursue my Ph.D.’”

Tipton began her doctoral work while still living in Charleston, but when her husband took a job in Puerto Rico, that meant she needed to continue her already-remote studies in a slightly more remote location.

She has now lived in Puerto Rico for nearly a year of roughly 18 months she’s been in Clemson’s program, finishing her classes, doing background research and volunteering at various reserves and forests to get the lay of the land. And one of those volunteer opportunities arose through another Clemson connection at El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest Service, where Keenan Adams — who earned his master’s and Ph.D. at Clemson — is the forest director.

“Keenan is really great,” she said. “He has helped me network around here and has gotten me out in the forest, helping out with surveying coqui frogs at night and doing raptor surveys. He’s helped me get out and do so many cool things here already.”

Tipton snorkels a seagrass bed in Jobos Bay.

Tipton’s research will focus on identifying sources of land-based pollution coming into Jobos Bay and determining how it affects the ecosystem in order to plan restoration activities in the watershed to decrease pollution entering the bay.
Image Credit: Clemson University

During other volunteer work at Jobos Bay, assisting with seagrass and water quality monitoring, Tipton learned about the opportunity for the Davidson Fellowship. While she applied for other fellowships in order to continue funding her studies and research, none were such a great fit for her goals as the one at Jobos Bay.

And to do so through a fellowship attached to the name Margaret A. Davidson carries no small weight in the community of coastal ecology.

The late Davidson was an icon who mentored and befriended many of today’s coastal leaders through 43 years of her own coastal leadership. Through a research project, Davidson Fellows will address a key coastal management question to help scientists and communities understand coastal challenges that may influence future policy and management strategies.

“To have Jessica representing us in that endeavor and under Margaret Davidson’s name is really amazing,” said Hitchcock, an associate professor in Clemson’s Agricultural Sciences Department. “It’s a big deal, not only as tribute to Davidson’s life and career, but also toward connecting past and future leaders full circle in coastal research, education and decision-making.”

“Jessica has a ton of potential,” added Whitmire, a BICEFS research scientist. “She’s definitely a go-getter. She took a couple classes before she moved to Puerto Rico. But since she’s been in Puerto Rico, she has made all kinds of connections in the pursuit of funding to help support her as a student down there. So, she’s really building her own research goals and agendas, and we’re helping to guide and inform that and help keep her on track for her Ph.D., but she’s really taken a lot of the initiative to make the connections and find the resources and people.”

In Tipton’s case, the key coastal management issue involves an interdisciplinary project aimed at identifying sources of land-based pollution coming into Jobos Bay and determining how it affects the ecosystem in order to plan restoration activities in the watershed to decrease pollution entering the bay.

“There are land-based sources of pollution — nutrients and sediments that are coming from the land and entering the coastal ecosystem — and what we want to know is: Where are they entering the ecosystem and how are they affecting the ecosystem?” she said. “I’ll be working to develop a biological condition gradient for seagrasses and mangroves, specifically. That’s basically where I will collaborate with experts from around the region using workgroups where we will determine how the ecosystems function along a gradient of stress. So, for example, if there’s a lot of pollution entering the ecosystem, what should we expect to see? If it’s a really pristine ecosystem, what should we expect?”

Thus, the research uses multiple ecological indicators to assign a grade to each particular area — a specific seagrass bed or mangrove forest — and those grades will help communicate the overall health of the ecosystem to the community and to land managers much more easily.

According to the scientists who are advising her, not only is Tipton’s ability to make connections and secure funding impressive, but so is the nature of her research.

“The work that she’s doing is of her own initiative, according to the National Estuarine Research Reserve Jobos Bay management plan, which she had to follow as a guide to the fellowship at that specific reserve,” Hitchcock said. “The work she’s proposed is really novel and important in the face of sea-level rise and climate change. Using seagrass beds as an indicator of habitat, as a keystone of change with all the change that’s happening globally and regionally, it’s important work, and there’s really no good way to measure these habitats. And she’s really coming up with, based on someone else’s work and based on the needs of the reserve, a way to look at these seagrass beds in a very novel way that’s about as quantitative as you can be with habitat index to assess what change is happening to these ecosystem habitats.”

Pending congressional appropriations, NOAA will provide an annual budget for each Davidson fellow that includes a stipend and funds for professional development travel, as well as an annual budget for each reserve to support equipment and supplies for the fellow’s research.

Tipton said she is appreciative to have received the fellowship, which will allow her to work not only in a unique and scenic location — one with a mixture of mangroves, seagrasses and coral reef — but also to continue research on a subject that is ecologically important to the habitats and people in Puerto Rico.

While Tipton’s time on Clemson’s physical campus has been brief, it hasn’t been nonexistent. She said she spent about a week in Clemson meeting with various faculty and has also done more extensive work on the Baruch campus studying under Professor William Conner and others. Plans to return to both the main and Baruch campuses were put on hold this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Tipton said she definitely hopes to make it back to Clemson to spend more time in the future.

“Here in Puerto Rico when I’ve worked with folks from Clemson, they’re as nice as can be. And out at Baruch, I feel like I could call up anybody and they would help me out in a second,” she said. “I’ve found that, no matter where you go, Clemson people are very similar — down-to-earth and knowledgeable people, but also really just dependable and kind.”

Tipton at El Yunque National Forest.

During her time in Puerto Rico, Tipton has taken part in various volunteer activities, including work at El Yunque National Forest (pictured here).
Image Credit: Clemson University