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Keys to Research

Published: May 11, 2004
As a senior Honors student majoring in marine biology, Sherri Huelster might seem mismatched for her work as a research assistant to Dr. Robert Kerstein, chair and professor of government and world affairs.

But in the realm of advanced research, whether in graduate school or undergraduate Honors, worlds often collide with positive results. And as it turns out, she is more a colleague than an assistant.

“It was a proposed plan that I was hoping to work this summer with a biology professor,” she says, “but I went along with an Honors research fellowship. I’ve been looking at the Florida Keys and the different environmental policies and regulations that had been put into place as early as 1901, 1903 with Teddy Roosevelt, and going through the National Marine Sanctuary, examining the impacts on local politics, ecology, economics that make up the Florida Keys, that they live by.”

Competitive Research

Through a rigorous pursuit of academic journals, scientific journals, peer-reviewed journals, environmental regulations, history books and newspaper articles, Huelster has amassed an impressive body of information on what has happened to the Keys in the past century or so, and what public reaction has been to those changes.

“I had to get human initial influences of the French discovery to the pipeline from Miami to Key West, the railroad, the Overseas Highway.”

That information is converging to form something of a socio-environmental history of the enchanting string of islands that skirt the southern tip of the Sunshine State in a gently sweeping arc that touches the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

That’s perfect for Kerstein, who is busy at work on his next book about Florida.

“I’m going to be able to draw on some of Sherri’s research for a book I’m writing on Key West that primarily focuses on the evolution of Key West as a tourist destination, primarily since the ’70s. But of course, it started decades earlier.

“When you look at tourism,” he says, “among the things you look at are the impacts of tourism, the environmental impacts. That certainly overlaps the work that Sherri’s been doing.”

That research is something Huelster takes very seriously.

“It was competitive,” Huelster says of obtaining the fellowship. “Only five individuals were granted this research for the 2003-2004 school year.”

Near the conclusion of the academic year, at the end of April, each fellowship recipient must deliver a speech. In the fall semester, Huelster began with researching and writing the paper. This semester, her task involves funneling the fruits of her labors into a 15-minute speech and Power Point presentation.

A Matter of Cause and Effect

In a relationship that can get a bit confusing, the credit she earns will go toward her minor in history.

“I figured that, since I knew a lot about the biology aspect, it would be more interesting to look at how this happened,” she says of tourism’s impact on the Keys. “Because every cause has an effect; every action, reaction.”

She stayed at UT over the summer, and began her research almost immediately, in late May or early June. Drawing on information from about 70 sources filled her summer with reading and digesting. Kerstein helped her with an annotated bibliography, an outline and a “major rough draft.” After “major editing” through subsequent drafts, Huelster says she is crafting and polishing her final draft this semester.

Contributing to her already whetted appetite was a dive trip to the Keys for the Coral Reefs Honors course with Dr. Kevin Beach. The purpose of the trip was to get students acquainted with each other and comfortable together as divers before the group’s big trek, a two-week underwater excursion in Honduras.

“We got used to each other before two weeks in another country,” she says with a little laugh, perhaps at the obvious logic, or maybe at a vague inkling of what might have happened without that preparatory step.

But getting to know her classmates and soon-to-be travel mates better wasn’t all she gleaned from the dress rehearsal.

“The dive shops were very clear in telling people who went out snorkeling and scuba diving, ‘Don’t touch the reef. This is a protected environment, because that’s what falls under sanctuary. You cannot touch. It’s a no-touch zone, basically. Don’t touch anything, don’t try to take coral, don’t try to pick up sand dollars.’

“If you dropped your weights, they would try to go back and retrieve them, because you’d just be damaging coral. These are no-anchoring zones, so they don’t drop anchor. There are over a hundred buoys set up in the Keys so you can attach your boat and not damage anything.”

A Work in Progress

The efforts, Huelster says, finally are paying off with positive results: The once-large sponge beds are beginning a rebound after being wiped out in the 1950s. Some species of fish, she says, also are beginning a recovery.

“The people down there are becoming more adjusted to [the safeguards]. At first, some are outraged, and saying, ‘I’m not going to do this. This is going to ruin our economy.’

“But now, they’re beginning to realize, through education of different environmental groups or their own education, that they need [the safeguards] to survive, because if [the ecosystem in the Keys] isn’t healthy, then they’re not going to be able to live there.

“So, they’re kind of getting on the same page as of now, but it’s still a work in progress.”