Humans of CASE: Erika Somoza

Erika Somoza carries metal straws in her backpack to reduce single-use plastics. If you use a plastic straw around her? She’ll gift you one of hers.

“Single use plastics only have a lifespan of about seven minutes. I actually gave a pack to one of my friends and my encouragement led to her dad ruling out plastic straws in his hotel. I was just being myself, someone else took notice and it created a huge change.”

Her passion for the ocean conservation came almost by accident. Within her first year at FIU, the alumna switched her major from medicine to marine biology after mistakenly taking a course titled Methods in Marine Field Ecology with Dr. Kevin Boswell.

“I picked a topics in biology course that was being offered for the first time but didn’t [really] read the description,” she said. “The first day we were in the mud, in the mangroves, taking measurements and samples. As the weeks went on we did different things in the field and I just couldn’t believe people got paid to do that. After that class, I knew I didn’t want to do anything else.”

Realizing that this was something she wanted to pursue, Somoza began building her resume as an undergraduate. She landed a job as an environmental programs assistant with the School of Environment, Arts and Society. During the academic year she coordinated coast line clean-ups, district-wide family science nights and K-12 educational programs with the community and local schools.

Her favorite part was her work as a camp counselor at EcoAcademy. Held over the course of four weeks at the end of each summer for kids aged 6-14, Somoza helped from start to finish. This included handling registration, developing activities, scheduling weekly field trips and managing day-to-day schedules with various hands-on experiences for campers.

“We kayak, snorkel, dissect animals, look at the anatomy of fish. We try to theme each week so that the kids that come throughout the duration of the camp get a completely different experience each time.”

Previous themes include Tech to Protect, Rescue and Restore, Shifting Shorelines and Take Back the Wild. One of her preferred activities was walking the kids over to the butterfly garden located at the Biscayne Bay Campus.

“It teaches you a lot about life. At one point everything is dying and you’re like oh my God it’s never going to bounce back and all of a sudden it just starts raining and things re-sprout. Kind of like in life you go through a really rough spell, when it rains it pours, and then everything is in bloom again. I find it very cathartic.”

Somoza practices what she preaches in every area of life. She maintains a sustainable diet and uses chemical free products. Next steps? She wants to dive into research and credits professor Bracken-Grissom for her words of encouragement and creative classroom approach.

“We were able to go on a research vessel and look at deep-sea animals, suit up, watch the tows come in, set up a little lab on the deck, sleep, wake-up and do it again. It was a surreal experience.”

Eventually she wants to purse a masters in fishery biology to look at how recreational fishing is affecting fish populations.

After graduation, Somoza worked as a technician with the Trexler: Aquatic Ecology Lab before being hired as a naturalist at the Biscayne Nature Center. She employed some of her camp counselor skills – taking groups of kids to seagrass beds and exploring the critters in the area. In 2020, she will start a new position with Miami-Dade County as a Biologist I. She’ll mainly work with permitting and the preservation of wetlands area.

“I knew I wasn’t going to get the money that I would have gotten being a pediatrician or going into pediatrics. I feel like a lot of people don’t like where they are at or what they are doing. So, I think it’s really lucky to be able to do something that you really like. I’m happy I’m doing something that has a purpose and that means a lot to me too.”