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Ianna Gilbert

WHOI Summer Student Fellow Ianna Gilbert (2023) from Brandeis University. (Photo by Elise Hugus © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Being from Jamaica, Queens, New York, there wasn’t much of an emphasis on the STEM field of studies in my high school. Not many people knew about ocean science or the importance of it. I had an opportunity to intern at the Natural History Museum of New York, but that was a very, very rare opportunity. I don't want these opportunities to be rare in my community.

During my time at Brandeis, I’ve had the chance to study abroad in Bocas del Toro, Panama, and that was kind of my first introduction into marine science. Since then, I've been trying to find some way of intersecting my interest in computer science and environmental studies, as those are my two majors. Being placed in Yogesh Girdhar’s WARP Lab at WHOI was a perfect match.

Before this summer, I didn't know I had an interest in robotics at all. But when I went with the lab to St. John, in the US Virgin Islands, for two weeks, I had my first hands-on experience with robotics. Being able to code, and at the same time, be in the ocean, see these cool animals, and swim with the barracudas was just amazing. Over the summer, I worked on creating a neural network to quantify the health of corals around St John's. Next, I want to make an in-situ version where when I deploy the robot right away, you can tell what corals are there, what fish there are, in real time.

I aim to use robotics to help solve the impacts of climate change on our planet. I see myself helping to create new technologies or add to what’s already out there so that we can figure out what is going on– but also, how do we fix it? What I love about this lab at WHOI, it's not one concrete end-goal they're looking for. It's more like, ‘How far can we go until we can't go anymore? And even then, how far can we go after that?’ The goal is to test the limits, and then go beyond those limits.

Gilbert with the WARP Lab's CUREE robot in St. John, USVI. © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Gilbert works on CUREE, the "curious robot" between surveys of reef ecosystems near St. John, USVI. (Photo courtesy of Ianna Gilbert © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

In the future, I hope to conduct research abroad, connect with people all over, and build communities. I’m inspired by the idea of becoming a mentor to the younger generation. From personal experiences, I’ve noticed it can sometimes be intimidating to ask questions of someone in a much higher position. But if I were to put myself in the shoes of a 10 year-old who is interested in being an engineer or doing marine research, I don't want them to feel that way. I want to break that barrier between scientist and aspiring scientist to help children see that their dreams can be a reality because they have people and resources to support them. I just want to open that path and let the future generation know it is possible to do science, regardless of your background. It doesn't have to be the way it is now. We can make a change.