Ecosystem Assessment and Restoration: Matt Garrett

Starting as a volunteer at FWRI's Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory, Matt eventually turned his focus from manatees to microorganisms that form harmful algal blooms.

Matt GarrettDegrees

B.S. Marine Science, Eckerd College, 2003
Present non-degree-seeking student, University of South Florida (USF)


My career with the FWC started in 1999, while I was a student at Eckerd College. I began as a volunteer at FWRI's Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory, where I would assist in manatee necropsies, cut ear bones, and help in the occasional rescue and capture. Later, I became an intern. During the summer of 2002, I was a lab assistant, and my duties expanded to include carcass retrieval and laboratory analyses-you know, the fun stuff.

During the winter semester of 2001, I was enrolled in an independent study at the path lab. I looked at various aspects of the red tide-related manatee die-off in 1996. Little did I know that this would not be the last time red tide and I crossed paths. In 2003, I was involved in another independent study/internship at FWRI with Fisheries-Independent Monitoring, looking at the sexual dimorphism and annual replacement of spines of the southern and cownose rays.

After graduation, the Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) subsection at FWRI hired me for a ballast water project, the first of its kind in Florida. This was a project to investigate the risk of introducing harmful algae into Florida waters from foreign ports through ships' ballast water. We collected an unidentified species from ballast water that may be new to Tampa Bay. I have enjoyed working with various other programs at the Institute, including assisting with manatee necropsies, rescues, and captures and the 2011 manatee synoptic aerial survey; diving for the seagrass recovery program in the Keys and Ten Thousand Islands and for the fish biology group's spotted seatrout program; and investigating HAB species in Costa Rica and Jamaica. I also was involved in USF's post-oil-spill assessment cruise aboard the R/V Weatherbird II.

What are you working on now?

I am working on the HAB group's ECOHAB: Karenia program. This is a six-year, $4.8 million program funded by NOAA that is focused on two questions: (1) what are the different nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient sources fueling the massive, persistent biomass accumulations of Florida red tide? and (2) where are these nutrients coming from?

Our approach to these questions involves a team of scientists with varied expertise in nutrients, red tide and other HABs, and the southwest Florida environment. The work includes laboratory studies, comparative field studies, examination of multiple nutrient sources, measurement of physical flows, and computer modeling. The project is in its last year of funding, and I am trying to finish experiments, write up the data, and assist with the project's special-edition publication in the journal Harmful Algae.

How is this information beneficial?

This project takes a multifaceted approach to understanding why we have the blooms, as well as when and where. The information we collect and analyze will be used to lessen the impacts of the blooms for both the environment and the public.

What is your typical workday like?

I really don't have a "typical" workday. Every day brings new challenges.

Do you have a favorite species to study?

Tough question. I enjoy so many species for their unique qualities. I enjoy working with manatees because they are so odd, and I've always had a great interest in sharks. But for algal species, I tend to gravitate to cyst-forming species. The idea that these species can lie dormant for up to 10 years and then cause a bloom is pretty fantastic.

What is your greatest accomplishment?

I don't think I have one accomplishment that I could call the greatest, but knowing that I have a piece, whether minimal or extensive, in the success of so many different and wide-ranging projects is a big accomplishment for me.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

I think my biggest challenge is staying current in the field. There is always so much more to know, and technology is always changing the game. It seems just when you've learned or mastered a method, something new comes out. And like most fields, information is rarely restricted to one discipline; you have to understand all facets to get the big picture.

What do you like most about your career?

Overall, I enjoy the possibility of discovery, but the one thing I like most is the flexibility and opportunity to learn so many different aspects of marine science. I strive to be well-versed in a variety of subjects, rather than focusing on just one area. I have been very fortunate in the opportunities and experiences in my time at FWRI.

Did anyone inspire you to become a scientist?

My mother is a nurse and has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and I've always admired that.

When did you choose this career path?

People often ask me how a boy from the Midwest fell in love with the ocean. I always had a propensity for water, and I tended to gravitate to animals. I had a subscription to National Geographic and enjoyed learning of faraway places and was excited with the element of adventure. All it took was a school trip in the second grade to the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and I knew what I wanted to do. It all kind of fell into place.

What would you be doing if you weren't involved in science?

No idea-probably walking around aimlessly in a parking lot somewhere.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?

Internships have been invaluable not only in advancing my basic knowledge, but in springboarding my career. I would suggest getting involved with as many volunteer and internship opportunities as you can. Sometimes it's not all what you know, but who you've met. Being involved in multiple programs can open multiple doors or even lead to a carryover between two. I would also say if you are passionate enough, never give up and always keep your feet moving. Things will work out in the end.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I like to think of myself as a pretty active person. I enjoy anything that is nature-related like camping and hiking, but I also like to play various sports (softball, soccer, hockey), and of course, anything that involves getting into the water.

FWC Facts:
Sawfish look like sharks but are actually a type of ray. Their gill slits are on the bottom of their bodies, like stingrays.

Learn More at AskFWC