Name: Lydia Cuni
Hometown: Hialeah, FL
Degree/major: B.S. Biology & M.S Environmental Science
Graduation date: Spring 2014 & Fall 2019
Where are you working? Title? Field Biologist at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
How did you get your job?
Close to my undergraduate graduation I began an internship at Zoo Miami where I mostly conducted butterfly surveys in the pine rocklands. This endangered ecosystem has a diversity of 300-600 plant species, which I had also become skilled at identifying. Through this internship at Zoo Miami, I met Jennifer Possley, who was the Field Biologist at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. She’d been impressed with my knowledge of the local botany and two years ago she hired me to work with her.
What previous experience was required for you to be hired to that position?
To be hired as a Field Biologist at Fairchild I needed experience in field research. My position involves a lot of hiking in the hot and humid subtropical Florida climate, where it is important to be cautious and prepared for anything.
I learned how to plan my days in the field, so they can be as productive as possible. This includes knowing about where you are going and creating a checklist to ensure you have all the supplies you need, and extra, to get the job done. I also needed strong background knowledge on South Florida ecosystems, such as the pine rockland, which I developed through my internships and coursework.
How did you gain that experience? What internship(s) did you participate in?
Eight months after graduating with my Bachelor’s I started my first paid experience in the field, as a Resource Monitoring Intern with the National Park Service (NPS) South Florida & Caribbean Monitoring Network (SFCN) wherein I helped monitor the vital signs of the local national parks. These vital signs are biological indicators that are monitored to indicate the health or condition of a national park’s resources. For nearly two years I worked with NPS biologists counting hundreds of colonial bird nests, measuring mangrove soil surface elevation tables, and transplanting and GPS mapping endangered Schaus swallowtail butterfly host plant Torchwood, Amyris elemifera, all in Biscayne National Park. In Big Cypress National Preserve I helped documented exotic plants and then spatially analyzed their coverage.
Working with the SFCN was the experience that instilled the confidence in me to conduct my own field study for my graduate research. With Dr. Cara Rockwell, I began to study the pine rockland habitat of Long Pine Key in Everglades National Park. With the goal to further our understanding and to inform future land management activities such as restoration and conservation, I researched how the plant community changed as one went from hardwood hammock through the ecotone, (the transition zone between two ecosystems), and out into the pineland. I was able to identify certain features of the ecotone that makes it important (like high species richness and diversity) and discuss some methods for the restoration and conservation of other pine rockland-hardwood hammock ecotone sites.
What was your greatest fear going into your first job and how did you face it or overcome it?
Since I was still completing my Master’s degree when Fairchild hired me in July 2018, I felt pressure to finish writing my thesis while I was getting started at my new job. I wanted to get my Master’s research out to the public. I had a lot of data that was very tedious to analyze, so I did feel overwhelmed at times. I really had to buckle down and focus. I’m proud to say I got it done!
What do you do at your job?
Being a field biologist gives me the opportunity to be involved in ecosystem restoration and conservation. I was first hired to manage a big conservation project with five recently endangered pine rockland plant species: 1. Florida Brickell-bush, Brickellia mosieri; 2. Keys partridge pea, Chamaecrista lineata var. keyensis; 3. Keys wedge spurge, Chamaesyce deltoidea ssp. serpyllum; 4. Carter’s flax, Linum carteri var. carteri; and 5. sand flax, Linumarenicola. My job was to collect and preserve seeds from all sites the five species are found, and also to augment the most imperiled populations for each of the five species.
What surprised you the most about your first job?
Even though I’m a field biologist, I still do a lot of work in the office, on the computer. It is so important to be organized and to communicate your science.
After working in the field, we usually have a method for inputting the data into worksheets and databases, making it easier to analyze later. At Fairchild we use a data management system that helps us organize data by site, date, species, etc. In addition to inputting and analyzing the data, every few months we also need to write reports about our work. We also use our data to help plan future work.
What advice do you have for those beginning the job search process?
It’s important to know what you can offer a potential employer. Know your strengths and be confident in your value to a team. Everyone has different skills.
People communicate and learn in different ways. For example, some people are great at expressing themselves visually, others are great at speaking. Being a part of a team involves different types of people coming together for one goal. Everyone has something unique to contribute. Know what sets you apart from others.
What does a day on the job look like?
Every day is different. I rely on planning using the calendar and according to the seasons. Field work can depend on when certain species are flowering because that may be when it’s easiest to identify them and record their abundance. Since I work on lands that are considered Miami-Dade County preserves, I also spend time coordinating with the land managers to schedule my field work in advance.
How does your job connect back to your coursework?
Now I am indebted to Dr. Hong Liu’s Restoration Ecology course. The material I was introduced to during the course has been very helpful in my work because I now actually use one of the class’ textbooks as a go-to source for rare plant conservation methods. Knowing the proper scientific and ethical ways to work with these rare plants has been crucial in my job. It was also fun to work alongside her when the Fairchild Conservation Team installed a plant translocation experiment for the Keys partridge pea, one of my project’s species and Hong’s PhD dissertation study species.
I also learned many different plant species, their classification, and their uses in courses taught by Dr. Bradley Bennett such as Local Flora, Economic Botany, and Taxonomy of Tropical Plants.
How has your transition from school to work been? How do you balance your time?
I started my position at Fairchild while I was still finishing graduate school, so balancing school and work was a challenge. I found comfort in the fact that most graduate students also work full time. It takes some juggling, but we get through it!
One thing that really helped me balance my time was finding a comfortable place where I could focus on my schoolwork. For me that place was my desk at the Fairchild Science Village. While I was nearing the end of my degree, I spent a lot of extra time at my desk computer analyzing data for my research. I’m grateful to have had that space where I could eliminate distractions and get things done.
What’s been the coolest thing about your job so far?
After humans changed the landscape in Miami, many plants became endangered. It is an incredible privilege to participate in the effort to save these endangered plant species, along with remembering those who came before me, and the records they’ve left behind for us all.