Outstanding Islander Eliza Mills ’23 Studies Dolphins, Earns Marine Biology Master’s Degree

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — With a fascination for the ocean that began in childhood, Eliza Mills ’23 discovered a second home as a master’s student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Having lived in Hawai’i as a child, Mills found inspiration not just from the tropical culture of the Island University — she also found it to be a perfect place for dolphin research. 

For her high-achieving academic accomplishments, including the study of marine life and her desire to inspire others to protect the natural habitat, Mills was selected as the Summer 2023 Outstanding Islander Graduate for the College of Science. Mills will receive a Master of Science in Marine Biology with a perfect 4.0 GPA. The Aug. 12 ceremony is breaking records with 740 students earning their degrees, making it the largest summer class in the university’s 76-year history.

Mills grew up in a military family and fell in love with marine mammals during her formative years in Hawai’i.

“During a whale-watching trip south of Honolulu, I witnessed several magnificent humpback whales,” Mills said. “It was the moment that truly sparked my interest in learning how to protect the ocean and live sustainably with it.”

Later, when her family was stationed in San Antonio, Mills made many trips to Corpus Christi, where she caught a glimpse of dolphins in the ship channel. She carried the memory with her as she completed her undergraduate studies in marine science at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

When it was time to choose a place for her graduate degree, Mills said she knew exactly where to go. 

“I chose to attend TAMU-CC to study those same dolphins that I had seen so many years ago during my trips to Corpus Christi,” she said. “I was also excited about the well-rounded marine biology master’s program at the Island University, as well as the culturally diverse campus.”

Mills wasted no time reaching out to Dr. Dara Orbach, TAMU-CC Assistant Professor of Marine Biology, who was delighted to become her graduate advisor. 

“When I first reached out to Dr. Orbach, I emphasized my desire to study marine mammals, learn transferable skills needed in various job settings, and have the opportunity to mentor and teach other students research techniques and about the environment,” Mills said. 

Working with Orbach allowed Mills to check off all her boxes. She hit the ground running in fall 2021 with a scholarship in hand along with a graduate teaching assistant position. 

Over the course of her time on the Island, Mills taught many lab sections of freshman biology, tropical ecosystems and conservation, junior and senior functional anatomy, and biology for non-science majors.

“I quickly came to learn that I am a strong and capable leader who can teach a subject even if it is a topic that I am less familiar with,” Mills said. “Teaching science labs at TAMU-CC furthered my interest in teaching and educational outreach to the public.”

Mills also worked as a graduate research assistant under Orbach, where she logged 288 hours of data collection related to the movement patterns of bottlenose dolphins in the Corpus Christi Ship Channel.

“My research fills a crucial gap in knowledge on bottlenose dolphin behavior and interactions with high vessel traffic in the Corpus Christi Ship Channel near Port Aransas,” Mills said. “My project has allowed me to gain more experience in current marine mammal research techniques and teach undergraduate students proper scientific data collection methods.”

During the duration of her studies, Mills trained 15 students, all from groups historically underrepresented in STEM disciplines, in hands-on field-based data collection techniques. 

“Eliza has been an inspirational student to her peers and an outstanding mentor to underclassmen,” Orbach said. “She is a leader, prodigious scholar, and excellent ambassador of our institution.”

All the while, Mills herself grew in her research skills. She earned a certification in Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) through the National Spill Control School at TAMU-CC and another certification in geographic information systems. She also learned new research methods from Orbach and skills that would transfer out of the lab. 

“Dr. Orbach strongly encouraged me to apply for grants, attend conferences, and present my research,” Mills said.

That encouragement from Orbach assisted Mills in earning three grants totaling $6,000. She also presented at seven conferences, where she won multiple awards, and is on track to publish her exciting research findings in four peer-reviewed journals. Mills joined the Marine Science Graduate Student Organization and the American Cetacean Society Student Coalition and took part in numerous public outreach and education events about marine mammal conservation in the Coastal Bend. In her free time, she bird-watched in the Oso Bay Wetlands Preserve, volunteered with the sea turtle nest patrols and hatchling releases at Padre Island National Seashore, and spoke to more than 500 people about her research at the Earth Day Bay Day festival in downtown Corpus Christi.

Following graduation, Mills hopes to work with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the protected species division, a career she first learned about so long ago in Hawai’i.

“TAMU-CC is a place where I learned to think critically,” Mills said. “Being an Islander helped advance my scientific studies and exploration, as well as provided crucial research experience that will hopefully lead to a job with NOAA or a potential Ph.D. program in the future.”