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Science without borders

Scuba class helps alumna dive into a career in coral reef conservation
By Megan Williams ('10)

Amanda Williams ('04) in her scuba gear off the coast of the Philippines.

As a kid, the idea of the water's unknown depth frightened Amanda Williams ('04). As she grew up, those fears abated only to reappear with an opportunity to become scuba certified while she was a student at JMU.

"I had nightmares about drowning or various creatures I might encounter," admits Williams.

She more than overcame her fears. The geographic science major works for the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation and has been on countless scuba trips around the world. The foundation, named after His Royal Highness Prince Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, focuses on ocean conservation and restoration, something Williams became fascinated with at a young age.

In fifth grade, she created a water pollution video for a class project. The assignment opened her eyes to the environmental problems facing the world today, from global warming to the depletion of natural resources. While vacationing at the beach with her family, she became more aware of her surroundings and the effects of the ocean. "I started noticing changes in the beach width, litter and increasing storm damage to homes," she says.

Starting her undergraduate studies as an international business major and Spanish and music minor, Williams focused on other interests outside of oceanography. But her cousin, a water quality biologist for the Coalition for Buzzards Bay, pointed her toward the geographic science department. Williams switched majors and knew she had found her calling. She completed several Study Abroad trips, including one to Baja California Sur, Mexico, where she studied sea turtles and marine protected areas.

It is the peace of the ocean that draws Willliams to it. "The silence of the ocean beneath the surface is really quite shocking," she says. That's quite ironic coming from a former Marching Royal Duke drumline member. "It's so quiet you can hear parrotfish chomping away at corals and macro-algae," she adds. The small, colorful fish and bright undulating coral reefs give Williams hours of fascinated pleasure when she goes on scuba dives. It's not always peaceful and serene, though, carrying 40 pounds of equipment during dives can be strenuous, and sometimes the choppy water causes her some anxiety. "Otherwise, every time I get in the water, I can't wait to chill out and explore Planet Ocean," Williams says.

As a GIS analyst with Living Oceans Foundation, Williams dives to complete a photo transect off the coast of Belize in December 2009.

The people she meets while traveling make her experiences even more worthwhile. Their shared interests in oceanography and preservation inspired Williams to pursue her current job with the Living Oceans Foundation. "Fellow divers and conservationists don't want to lose what they love, which is seeing many different species of fish, coral and other reef creatures," Williams explains. "Nobody wants a boring dive."

While finishing her thesis for a master's degree, Williams stumbled upon the open GIS analyst position with the foundation. She e-mailed the executive director and was hired within two weeks. At first, the experience was a whirlwind. She juggled her thesis and a full-time job, but Williams maintains that it's not every day that your "dream job" comes along. "When it does, you snatch it up."

As a GIS analyst, she works with data that she and three other full-time foundation members gather on various expeditions, including trips to Seychelles, the Red Sea, the Bahamas and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The foundation is planning a 2011-14 Global Reef Expedition which partners with teachers and scientists worldwide to assist in the understanding and management of coral reefs.

Though she was once frightened of the water's depth, and was once an international business major, Williams has followed the current her life has taken her on and enjoyed every minute of it.

More photos at www.gis.jmu.edu/features/amandawilliams.html.