One of VI-EPSCoR’s primary goals is to grow a USVI community that is scientifically and mathematically literate and engaged in issues that are scientific and environmental in nature. We do this by encouraging and supporting STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) education from K-12 and beyond so we can help grow a skilled work force.

Ultimately, our goal is realized when local scientists are able to stay in the USVI and work in their field because employment opportunities exist.

Dr. Habtes onboard the NOAA research vessel Nancy Foster

Dr. Habtes onboard the NOAA research vessel Nancy Foster

Dr. Sennai Habtes, Research Assistant Professor of Biological Oceanography at The University of the Virgin Islands is an accidental role model and success story of VI-EPSCoR’s efforts. 

Born and raised on St. Thomas, to parents Drs. Lois and Yegin Habtes from St. Thomas, and Eritrea respectively, he considers himself to be like UVI, Historically American, Uniquely Caribbean and Globally Interactive. Dr. Habtes obtained a BS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and PhD from the University of South Florida, after graduating from VI Montessori and Antilles Schools. In addition to teaching the undergraduate Oceanography Course and the Research Methods I and II courses in the MMES program at UVI, he is the lead oceanographic researcher at UVI. His research involves oceanographic and environmental monitoring,  studying ocean conditions and understanding how they drive patterns in marine life (like coral and fish larvae), marine debris prevention and education, and coastal ocean observing and modeling throughout the region.

Dr. Habtes also partners with the Caribbean Coastal Ocean Observing System (CariCOOS) in providing coastal ocean data and forecasts to stakeholders, and maintaining important coastal ocean research instruments. This includes the calibration and maintenance  of two research buoys, one off St. Thomas, and one off St. John. These buoys provide real-time data on oceanographic conditions (available here: www.caricoos.org) that researchers also use to understand how changes in oceanographic conditions are affecting our marine ecosystems. Equipment on the St. Thomas buoy is currently being repaired. It will soon be moved to the north side of St. Thomas during the annual research cruise on the NOAA Research Vessel Nancy Foster. Attending scientists from UVI include Dr. Habtes, Vanessa McKague, the oceanographic technician in Dr. Habtes’ Oceanographic Research lab at UVI, and two MMES students Kristen Ewen and Sarah Heidmann. This expedition is focused on understanding how oceanographic conditions in highly productive areas affect spawning, larval dispersal, and settlement of important coral reef fish species. If you're wondering what it's like on a research vessel, follow along with the cruise on their blog

Dr. Habtes is seen here with one of the CariCOOS bouys.

Dr. Habtes is seen here with one of the CariCOOS bouys.

While UVI scientist Dr. Rick Nemeth is engaged in tracking commercially important species and their spawning activities, Dr. Habtes studies how the larvae of these important species and others are dispersed via ocean currents. This impacts where the fishes’ larvae eventually settle and can have important implications for the health and sustainability of their populations.  The Nancy Foster collects ichthyoplankton samples (a mix of zooplankton and larval fish) with a variety of different net sampling techniques in order to determine larval fish density at the same time as a variety of samples that measure oceanographic conditions. This information tells us what types of conditions affect where the larvae of important grouper species like Mycteroperca venenosa (yellowfin grouper) will settle and thus which areas may need protection and/or support before, after, and during a spawning event, and what types of protection may be more appropriate. This type of data on the conditions surrounding spawning, and determining where in the water column commercially important grouper species larvae are being transported has never been investigated before and could provide vital information for researchers, managers, and stakeholders in the US Caribbean.

MMES Candidate Mara Duke benefits from real world learning with Dr. Habtes onboard the Nancy Foster.

MMES Candidate Mara Duke benefits from real world learning with Dr. Habtes onboard the Nancy Foster.

Dr. Habtes’ research primarily focuses on understanding how oceanographic conditions at a variety of time scales and spatial scales affect marine ecosystems, and patterns in biological productivity. He is also engaged on research that monitors larval fish and coral densities near the propane container ship managed by VITOL for the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) moored on the south coast of St. Thomas; and is currently completing a year long study of monthly zooplankton abundances in Brewers Bay, completed by his graduate student Mara Duke. To date there are no studies that have analyzed seasonal zooplankton assemblages in the VI. As zooplankton are an important part of the lower levels of the marine food web this can have important implications for marine ecosystems in the Territory.

In addition to marine research, Dr. Habtes is also very engaged with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives within the Geosciences. He is a Co-PI on the recently funded NSF Geo Opportunities for Leadership (GOLD) project Sparks for Change, focused on building diversity in geoscience departments by using small groups as change agents. 

Interestingly, Dr. Habtes is the only male minority faculty member in the Center for Marine and Environmental Sciences at UVI. He mentors and recruits future scientists of color and loves interacting with and watching students grow and develop in their field. He is driven to build a sustainable oceanographic program at UVI and to elevate the program so more diverse people can come into the field. His words of wisdom to students? “Go out there and try every opportunity to make anything you want to do a reality. Take anything that is offered and don’t ever think you can’t do that career because of where you went to school or because your knowledge base isn’t good enough. Try, and there will always be mentors and the support you need.”

Dr. Habtes' position with UVI is a direct result of VI-EPSCoR's current grant Mare Nostrum Caribbean and its dedication to raising the level of education and opportunity in the territory. 

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