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UNF graduate making waves with Disney Conservation’s sea turtle research

Rachel Smith HeadshotAs Disney Conservation finishes its 20th year of sea turtle conservation efforts, University of North Florida biology master’s program alumna Rachel Smith is also celebrating her 11-year anniversary as the marine team’s program manager with a historic research splash.  

While scouring the five-mile stretch of sand at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort for seven months, her team recorded over 2,800 sea turtle nests - the second most prolific loggerhead count seen across Florida since 2012, when Smith first joined the team. 

“The number of nests we found are far beyond any record we’ve ever recorded and much higher than we’ve ever seen in the past,” Smith excitedly explained. “To see this turn into a year when the loggerhead and green sea turtles made a recovery is mind-blowing.” 

Smith didn’t originally plan to work for Disney, but she always wanted to be a marine biologist. 

“Even as a kid living in the center of the desert in Arizona, I always loved the water and wanted to be a marine biologist someday,” said Smith. 


Pursuing her dream

After Smith received her undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona, she was watching TV one day and decided to take the next leap.  

“I randomly emailed a guy I saw on Shark Week and asked where I should pursue a marine biology internship,” Smith said. “And this scientist, who I had no previous connection with and didn’t know me, kindly responded suggesting I should look outside of Arizona for bigger opportunities.” 

UNF alum Rachel Smith working with two of Disney's Conservation team membersSmith first applied for an internship to work with sharks and landed on the sea turtle track that would begin to shape her career. After the internship was over, she realized she wanted to continue her educational pursuits with UNF’s coastal biology graduate program.  

During her time at UNF, Smith had many positive and impactful experiences, crediting a major part of her best memories to the faculty, especially Dr. Joseph Butler, Professor Emeritus of Biology and herpetologist, and Dr. Jim Gelsleichter, UNF Shark Biology Program director. 

“Dr. Butler is one of my favorite humans on earth,” Smith fondly recalls. “He’s one of the most passionate scientists and conservationists for species that aren’t often respected. I gained a lot of life lessons from him, both in the lab and while traveling on field trips.” 

While conducting her graduate research, Smith worked as a research assistant, taught labs and tagged sharks under the mentorship of Gelsleichter. 

“It was very apparent from my interactions with Rachel that she is a ‘born naturalist’ – a person fascinated with all aspects of natural history and knowledgeable about many,” said Gelsleichter. “I have been happy to continue interacting with her as part of her role in Disney’s marine conservation initiatives and as she continues to give back to UNF by providing her guidance and expertise to our current students.” 


Living her dream

UNF alum Rachel Smith working with two of Disney's Conservation team membersIn the summer of 2012, during the week Smith defended her thesis at UNF on gopher tortoises located in the White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, she joined the Disney Conservation team and started sharing their scientific initiatives through community engagement and education. 

One of Smith’s favorite parts about working on the Disney Conservation team is making connections and outreaching with locals and visitors at Disney. 

“Teaching labs helped me learn how critical it is to spread awareness about the importance of coastal resiliency,” said Smith. “One of the most important skills I gained at UNF was in becoming a better scientific communicator.” 

Smith loves sharing her passion for sea turtle conservation through Disney’s community engagement and education outreach initiatives in hopes to spark the next generation’s interest in growing up to be a marine biologist, just like her.