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Environmental Research Alumna Adjusts to COVID-19

By Alex Butler

21-year-old University of Tampa alumna, Coley Tosto, was set to travel to New Zealand to pursue her PhD when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. 

“There’s five people in the program plus my advisor,” said Tosto. “So it’s all five of them in a room together not worrying about distancing and it’s just me on Zoom.”

After graduating from UT in 2020 with a degree in environmental science, Tosto’s travel plans may have been put on hold, but the beginnings of her scientific career were not.

Tosto’s time at UT built the framework for her career as a scientist. During undergrad, Tosto built strong connections with biology professors, Heather Masonjones and Emily Rose. 

“She was in my Pathways course that was taught as an inquiry class and was paired with a team working on seahorse behavior,” said Masonjones. “She volunteered to do most of their project observations and care of the animals…from there she was kind of unstoppable.”

Her initial research experience with seahorses led her to work with a related species, the Gulf pipefish. 

During her undergraduate experience at UT, Tosto worked on multiple pipefish projects with Masonjones and Rose. 

Her research included projects studying the iridescent bands pipefish have on their bodies and how they change in different geographic locations. Another one of her other projects studied the effects of synthetic estrogen on male pipefish.  

According to Masonjones, Tosto’s persistence and willingness to take on a project that at first did not seem exciting, made her a likely choice for a PhD program 

Rose emailed Tosto a flyer from her collaborator, Sarah Flanagan, who is now Tosto’s PhD advisor. The flyer was asking for possible candidates for a PhD position in New Zealand. 

“I was thinking to myself there’s no way I can get this position and then I got in,” said Tosto. 

The program is three years in comparison to the typical five or six year program in the U.S. 

While stuck in America due to COVID-19 restrictions, Tosto’s connections from UT still allowed her to begin her PhD project from over 7,000 miles away.

Rose and Masonjones collaborated with Tosto’s advisor to redesign her project for pipefish species in America instead of New Zealand where she would have been doing fieldwork before COVID-19. 

“She was able to successfully complete the field and initial lab steps…and is working to analyze the data now,” said Masonjones. “Later this spring she will join Dr. Rose and begin the next phase of data collection on a new species that neither Dr. Rose or I have worked with before.”

Tosto hopes to depart for New Zealand in the upcoming Summer or Fall. Meanwhile, she is at home in Wisconsin analyzing data and writing her six month progress report.  

“The way the PhDs work in New Zealand is they’re only research, there’s no coursework so [since undergrad] it’s been harder to focus for that long on doing just one single thing,” said Tosto. “It’s been a lot more intense because that’s all I’m doing right now.”

Tosto’s research in New Zealand will continue to study pipefish. This time, she will focus on studying the evolution of sexual dimorphism in pipefish, which is the physical differences between males and females. 

Once she completes her PhD, Tosto hopes to become a professor and continue research. 

“I have no idea where it’ll take me,” said Tosto. “I did not expect to go to New Zealand for my PhD to start with. I love teaching…but for me it’s always been research is the most important thing I want to do because I never want to have a moment in my life where I’m not learning something.”

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