Outstanding Islander Graduate Allison Wilkins '23 Earns Biology Degree

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Allison Wilkins ’23 learned just as much outside the classroom as she did inside the classroom. As a member of the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi Honors Program, she created a recycling campaign, completed an internship at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (HRI), researched the local bottlenose dolphin population, presented at conferences, and helped her peers as a writing consultant. 

It’s an impressive slate of accomplishments for any undergraduate, but the fact that she did it all while completing a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a 3.88 GPA in only three years increases the depth of the achievement.

“Ally possesses an academic drive that is not seen very often,” said Sarah Pons, Writing Center Coordinator at TAMU-CC.

It’s all part of why Wilkins was selected as the TAMU-CC College of Science Spring 2023 Outstanding Islander Graduate. She will cross the stage on May 20 during a record-breaking ceremony that includes 1,319 graduates, the most Islanders to ever graduate in a single semester in the history of the university. 

A native of Magnolia, Texas, Wilkins originally dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. But in high school, when she began scuba diving, she realized her true calling was being out in nature with the animals she was serving.

“Scuba diving is what helped me discover the wonders of the oceans and my desire to protect and study the animals that reside within it,” Wilkins said. “I wanted to be out in the environment studying the ocean and the magnificent creatures that call it their home.”

A family friend suggested Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to her, and she toured the campus her junior year of high school. 

“I remember thinking ‘this is where I need to be,’” Wilkins said. “I immediately fell in love with the atmosphere, the size of the university, and the opportunities available at TAMU-CC.”

Her very first semester at the Island University, Wilkins was already making an impact. Working with her group in the Honors Program, she participated in the “Change the Island” project, which raised awareness of the campus recycling program. Promotional flyers the team created are still in use three years later.

Wilkins says the trajectory of her education shifted dramatically during her second semester when she landed an internship at HRI. It’s there that she was introduced to the possibilities of marine research and postgraduate work. She also became connected with the American Cetacean Society Student Coalition (ACSSC), which ignited her passion for cetaceans — whales, porpoises, and specifically dolphins.

“When I started my undergraduate career, I knew that I wanted to become a marine biologist with a focus on marine mammals,” Wilkins said. “However, it was not until I joined the ACSSC that I found my passion for cetaceans.”

In ACSSC, Wilkins quickly rose into leadership positions, serving as vice president and then president of the student group dedicated to aiding cetacean conservation. In connection with the organization, she organized behind-the-scenes tours at the Texas State Aquarium, outreach events, and guest speakers. Wilkins also volunteered to teach middle school students on the local “Texas Floating Classroom” vessel.

“Students can read and watch videos about dolphins all they want,” Wilkins said. “However, true learning comes from experiencing these fascinating animals in person. Having the dolphin trainers tell us about the dolphins’ training and intelligence while we are observing the animals is a fundamental part of learning about the species.”

During year two of her program, Wilkins began an internship with Dr. Dara Orbach, TAMU-CC Assistant Professor of Marine Biology, where she learned the basics of dolphin photo identification, environmental data collection, and operating research vessels.

“I was so excited to go on my first dolphin survey,” Wilkins said. “This was the first time I saw bottlenose dolphins up close. I still remember some of the dolphins from that trip and the nicknames we gave them. This first survey played a crucial role in my undergraduate research and future research decisions.”

Through the Honors Program’s Project of Excellence and the Lewis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), Wilkins has conducted undergraduate research with Orbach related to the population abundance of bottlenose dolphins in the Texas Coastal Bend, which has not been assessed in more than three decades. 

“Ally spends countless hours matching individually distinctive dorsal fin photographs of dolphins combined with boat-based fieldwork collecting new photographs,” Orbach said. “She has excelled in all aspects of her research and is a dependable and competent scientist who has been eager to learn new techniques.”

Wilkins has presented her research at eight conferences, including the Texas Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol, and made valuable connections for her next steps in graduate school at the University of North Florida. She also received an award for the Best Undergraduate Presentation at the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium.

“This research project has given me vital skills in conducting research such as data collection, data analysis, dolphin identification, and more,” Wilkins said. “Without this amazing opportunity, I would have never learned these valuable skills early in my academic career. The experience I have gained from this project has helped me get into a master’s program, make life-long connections, and gain other transferable skills to help me in my future endeavors.”

This year, Wilkins has also served as a writing consultant for the Center for Academic and Student Achievement (CASA). In addition to helping individual students with writing assignments, she also gave class presentations and conducted workshops on important writing skills. 

As Wilkins looks to the future, she does so as a student looking forward to teaching students of her own. She plans to earn both her master’s degree and Ph.D., before returning to the university environment as a professor and researcher. 

“One of my professors once said that students are the engine of scientific discovery,” Wilkins said. “Since then, I have wanted to continue to be one of those students as well as someone to guide future students. I strongly believe that education plays an important role in species and environmental conservation, and as a professor, I believe I would be able to make a difference.”

She’ll leave the Island University having already made one. The packed schedule, the early mornings and late evenings, all contributed to her Islander Impact.

“Ally has left her mark in the department of marine sciences — the sign of a true academic,” Pons said. “She is leaving TAMU-CC as an accomplished scientist.”