What's My Story: Herpetologist

Kat Walston
Kat Walston just started an internship at the Brookhaven National Laboratory to study what box turtles do in the winter. She didn’t know she wanted to be a turtle wrangler when she grew up. That discovery was made at a summer camp focused on reptiles and amphibians called Slip Sliding Away hosted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

Herpetology: derived from herpetos, the Greek word for all “creeping” animals. Herpetology is the study of the behavior, ecology, physiology of amphibians and reptiles. 

When did you discover you wanted to be a biologist?
At a summer camp called Slip Sliding Away. It was one week during the summer before my senior year in high school and it changed my life. We called it Herp Camp (Herp is short for Herpetology) and it was more than a camp. It wasn’t like anything else I’d ever experienced. We studied science outdoors, without a textbook, working with faculty doing research on living animals. Everyday we collected data on amphibians and reptiles in the wild. It was also a training camp for teachers who watched how high school students, like me, learn science. I never saw myself handling snakes and lizards and frogs until that week. I learned to like it. I memorized the calls of all the frogs of North Carolina. Then, I fell in love with the Eastern box turtle - it’s such a beautiful little treasure. When I went back to school that year, I did my senior project on Box Turtles. I found out that Box Turtles were declining and wanted to find out why their population numbers were down. I interviewed all the faculty involved with the Herp Camp and found out about habitat fragmentation, road mortality, and the pet trade.

What did you study in school?
When I was going around looking at colleges, I took a tour of UNC Greensboro. To my great surprise, all of the professors from the Herp Camp taught there. When I saw this and heard about the Sea Turtle Conservation course, taught by Dr. Ann Somers—one of the herp professors I knew—I was sold on UNCG. I majored in biology, got to take the Sea Turtle Conservation course, go to Costa Rica and do a research project for an honors class on box turtles. In my junior year, I began volunteering—at the NCSU Vet School, at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Durham, and the Carnivore Preservation Trust in Pittsboro. Working with carnivorous mammals taught me that I really wanted to work with turtles. In my senior year, I did a mark and recapture study, using radio telemetry to track and compare the motions of males versus females in their home range.  

Where do you hope your career takes you?
Well, I got really lucky. At a national conference on box turtles last year, I met a researcher from Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island who told me about an internship with box turtles. Brookhaven is this giant research center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. So why do they care about box turtles? It turns out they want to study how 26 turtles they have marked behave during the winter. I will use radio telemetry to locate them and record their location, body temperature, and weight. We are interested in learning what box turtles do during winter.

What do you love about working with box turtles?
For me, I like to share my love turtles with others. I plan to continue my work with the Box Turtle Connection when my internship is over. I’m a project leader for Orange County. I like uploading my findings into the database so everyone can figure out how to help conserve this species. I like being a part of the effort. I want to continue to learn more, study them and do graduate research. 

- By Lucy Laffitte

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