Friends selects founding member for Young Professionals Board

By ANDREA MILAM St. John Correspondent / Virgin Islands Daily News

Lila Uzzell was quite familiar with the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park when she got the call requesting her presence as the first member of the organization’s Young Professionals Board.

She’d attended Friends-hosted events as an elementary school student, participated in Friends-sponsored summer camps at the V.I. Environmental Resource Station, worked as a Friends intern, and received several scholarships from the organization.

Still, the invitation to be a founding member of the newly-formed Young Professionals Board was unexpected.

“It took me by surprise and I thought it was an honor,” said Uzzell. “I’ve always had a good relationship with the Friends. I feel super fortunate to be on their board. I’ve never been on a board before, so it’s a really great learning opportunity.”

Uzzell’s appointment is a win-win as far as Friends Executive Director Tonia Lovejoy is concerned.

“The YP Board imagines giving the next generation of park stewards a seat at the table now, so that we may gain from their insights today,” she said. “We are so thrilled and honored to be a part of Lila’s journey into her career, and proud of how her commitment to St. John — and Mother Nature — is a common thread in her life. No doubt, Lila will continue to be an outstanding leader and friend to St. John.”

Uzzell was born and raised on St. John. As she looks back on her childhood, she said several factors encouraged her interest in the natural environment.

“Going to V.I. Environmental Resource Station was a really big thing for me growing up, and I learned a lot about both the marine and terrestrial environment of the Virgin Islands,” said Uzzell. “My mom and I would snorkel Ditleff frequently, and my parents got me into diving when I was pretty young. I earned my junior open water certification when I was 12.”

She attended Gifft Hill School before moving to Asheville, N.C. for her senior year of high school, and graduated in 2012. She started her college career at Warren Wilson College then transferred to UNC Asheville, from which she graduated in 2017 with a degree in general biology.

While Uzzell said she’s always been interested in marine biology, her UNC studies focused on botany, and carnivorous plants in particular.

After graduating from UNC, Uzzell and a friend took nearly three months to bike across the country from Virginia Beach, Va., to Astoria, Ore.

“It was a really cool experience because growing up down here people don’t really bike, so I wasn’t a big cyclist,” said Uzzell. “I just hopped on my bike and went.”

Following her cycling sojourn, Uzzell took a job at the Atlanta Botanical Garden where she worked for three years before deciding that big-city life wasn’t for her. She decided to return to academia, and her childhood home, by pursuing a master’s degree at the University of the Virgin Islands.

With one year in UVI’s Master of Science in Marine and Environmental Science program under her belt, Uzzell said she couldn’t be happier to be home.

“I love UVI,” she said. “It’s such a great graduate degree program. I thought I’d be interested in studying coral reef biology, but I also wanted to connect my knowledge of plants to the marine system, so I got into the mangrove lab.”

During her first year at UVI, Uzzell’s capstone project focused on how microplastics affect corals.

She and her peers studied how microplastic ingestion affects coral calcification, or the growth of a coral’s skeleton.

They also measured microfibers and microplastics found in territorial waters. As part of the project’s culmination

Uzzell and her fellow students delivered a presentation on microplastics to high school students at various schools in the St. Thomas-St. John district.

Next year, Uzzell’s studies will focus on Hurricane Hole, where she’ll collect data on mangrove regeneration and the diversity of corals in the area.

“Coral mangrove systems like Hurricane Hole are pretty rare to find,” said Uzzell. “Not only do corals grow in the mangrove canopy there, but you find corals growing on the mangrove crop roots, which is super unique. It’s probably the most diverse mangrove coral habitat in the world.”

Uzzell plans to graduate with her dual master’s degrees in December 2023, when she hopes to find a job locally, whether with the V.I. National Park, the Friends, or another environmental research or conservation organization.

Although there’s been a lot of bad news emerging from the territory’s oceans recently, from stony coral tissue loss disease to the mysterious mass sea urchin die-off, Uzzell said she has hope for the future of the territory’s natural environment.

“People not only within UVI, but with other organizations across the Virgin Islands, are doing really well to work together to fight these issues,” she said. “It’s really great to see that the V.I. has such a big community effort. While we can do our part locally, it’s more of a global issue that we’re facing with things like temperature rise and ocean acidification. But everyone is doing their part and I do have hope because I think every little thing counts.”

These sentiments echo part of the driving force behind Friends executive director Lovejoy’s efforts to get youth more involved in the organization.

“The Friends is committed to providing a pipeline of opportunities for St. John youth to learn and grow in their National Park, from cradle to career,” said Lovejoy. “The reason for this commitment is simple: humans benefit from being connected to and understanding the world around us. Explicitly involving St. John youth in outdoor learning is the least we can do to help prepare them for an outstanding life on Earth.”

For more information on opportunities at Friends —

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