With mentorship from Nebraska faculty, Westside High School student Humphrey gets head start on fisheries career as Hutton Scholar

Ella Humphrey, a rising senior at Westside High School in Omaha, took part in an eight-week fisheries internship with University of Nebraska faculty after successfully applying to be part of the nationwide Hutton Junior Fisheries Biology Program.
Ella Humphrey, a rising senior at Westside High School in Omaha, took part in an eight-week fisheries internship with University of Nebraska faculty after successfully applying to be part of the nationwide Hutton Junior Fisheries Biology Program.

Ella Humphrey’s interest in fisheries began with a freshwater home aquarium. The rising senior at Omaha’s Westside High School started keeping aquariums as a hobby and built a reservoir of knowledge about freshwater ecosystems in the process. She thrived at taking care of fish and creating balanced systems for them to live in.

“I am fascinated by the diversity of fish species in river systems, which led me to be more interested in the conservation of native species,” Humphrey said.

People who pursue degrees in fisheries often explore those topics throughout their careers, and Humphrey decided to pursue a career in fisheries as soon as she learned it was possible to have one. This summer, Humphrey worked with Jonathan Spurgeon with the U.S. Geological Survey—Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit after she successfully applied to be a member of the Hutton Fisheries Biology Program. Humphrey experienced multiple aspects of the fisheries career field by helping a collection of fisheries experts that included faculty members from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources as well as Nebraska Game and Parks Commission staff members.

The nationwide paid summer internship and mentoring program is sponsored by the American Fisheries Society. The program’s stated goal is to recruit and introduce high school students from underrepresented backgrounds, specifically minorities and women, into fisheries agencies and institutions. Only a handful of Hutton Scholars are chosen each year, and Humphrey is only the second student to partner with Nebraska faculty since the program began in 2001.

Humphrey’s path to applying for the Hutton program began a bit turbulently. During a zoology class she was taking at the Omaha Zoo, she was listening to a presentation about leeches and blood. Midway through it, she fainted.

“I never thought I was squeamish, but I guess I don’t like leeches,” she said.

While she waited to get picked up from school, she started talking with Dr. Elizabeth Mulkerrin, the vice president of education at the Omaha Zoo. Humphrey said they shared a lot of similar interests, and Mulkerrin suggested she look into applying for summer internships. Later at home, she searched online for fisheries-related internships.

“At last I stumbled upon the Hutton Junior Fisheries internship on a random website and was shocked by how amazing the internship sounded,” she said. “That night I began my application.”

Many Hutton Scholars apply with assistance from a mentor they hope to work with during the eight-week internship. Members of the Hutton Program contacted the Nebraska Chapter of the American Fisheries Society to find possible mentors within close proximity to Humphrey. Through a close-knit network of fisheries professionals across the state, Spurgeon was able to mentor Humphrey. Spurgeon said that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln SNR fisheries team, as well as faculty at other campuses across the University of Nebraska system, are happy to provide mentorship to high school students interested in applying for a Hutton scholarship for summer internships in Nebraska. Spurgeon said that the opportunity to work with a Hutton Scholar of Humphrey’s caliber has come as a welcome surprise.

“I’ve been really impressed,” Spurgeon said. “She’s as focused as many grad students.”

Humphrey said one of her favorite experiences of the eight-week internship took place during the first week. Humphrey and Spurgeon seine netted and backpack electrofished along the Platte River.

“This was my first glimpse at the fish diversity in Nebraska and my first time crossing a large river on foot,” she said.

During her summer internship, Humphrey has spent hours upon hours out on some of the Cornhusker State’s major waterways. She said one of her favorite experiences was boat electrofishing with Spurgeon and University of Nebraska-Lincoln SNR fisheries ecologist Mark Pegg.

“We went to the Missouri River where we caught countless species, including silver carp, blue sucker, and a massive 35-inch channel catfish,” she said. “Once we left the river and arrived at the UNL boat barn, I learned how to remove the otoliths from the silver carp, which I later aged.”

Spurgeon said that Humphrey has been “laser-focused” throughout the internship, adding that she can take her interest in fisheries as far as she wants it to go. The direction it appears to be heading is toward the study of large river ecology. She said that, in the future, she wants to conduct research on large rivers in an effort to better conserve threatened and endangered fish species. A “huge dream,” she said, is to work on some of South America’s largest rivers, like the Orinoco or Rio Negro.

“I am very interested in rivers due to the way they are always changing and evolving,” she said. “I think rivers present a fun challenge to work on because they are so interconnected and span huge distances. The fish diversity rivers hold also fascinates me, I love that I can find a little sand shiner or a large sturgeon in the same water. I had an amazing experience this summer on the Missouri River trawling for age zero sturgeon. The fact that a sturgeon barely 20 millimeters long can survive in such a large and fast flowing river like the Missouri still fascinates me.”

She said that the most valuable thing the Hutton internship gave her is “an opportunity to meet so many amazing people in the fisheries field.” Along with numerous SNR staff collaborations, Humphrey also helped conduct habitat surveys in streams with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission researchers.

“Every person I have met during my internship has been very kind and willing to teach me as much as possible about fisheries,” she said.

Spurgeon said that School of Natural Resources would be lucky to have Humphrey if she decided to pursue a fisheries and wildlife major at the school. That’s what she is currently considering.

“I have to admit that I am a little disappointed that I still have a year of high school left and that I can’t start my undergrad already,” she said. “After graduation I plan to get my undergrad in fisheries and wildlife from UNL, then I plan on going to grad school and possibly get a doctorate later on.”

For other high school students with an interest in fisheries, she said they should apply for the Hutton Junior Fisheries Biology Program.

“I would absolutely recommend the Hutton Scholars program to other high school students,” she said. “I believe anyone who has the chance to work with UNL faculty and participate in the program would be extremely lucky. The Hutton Scholars program has given me countless opportunities to network with people and get valuable hands-on experiences in the field.”

-Cory Matteson, SNR Communications