Meet Our Awesome People
Ryan grew up on Lemon Bay in Charlotte County where he fell in love with Southwest Florida’s nature. Ryan holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Romance Languages and Literatures from the University of South Florida and a Ph.D. in Geography and Environmental Sciences from Louisiana State University. Before becoming a conservationist, Ryan taught French and Italian at the university level for eight years.
Before starting with SCCF, Ryan worked on the Ending Illegal Fishing Project and Global Shark Conservation teams with The Pew Charitable Trusts. He traveled extensively to institute meaningful conservation measures in African and Latin American nations, as well as within various United Nations conventions, most notably the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. During his time with Pew, Ryan helped ensure global protections for thirteen species of sharks and rays.
As a Knauss Marine Policy fellow in the Office of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, Ryan served as the senator’s ocean, coastal, and flood insurance policy expert. Ryan is currently a member of the Federal Marine Protected Area Advisory Committee, which advises the U.S. Secretaries of Commerce and Interior.
Ryan has an affinity for the origins of food, and he especially loves cooking dishes from his family’s native Italy. He is an avid animal lover, and lives on Sanibel with his fiancée.
Cheryl has more than 30 years experience working on development and marketing strategies for business and non-profit organizations. She is an honors graduate of Georgetown University. Upon graduation from Georgetown University Law Center, she joined the National Public Radio General Counsel's Office as an attorney. In addition to traditional legal duties, Cheryl worked directly with the board of directors on development issues facing a non-profit corporation. Her career evolved from the practice of law into the field of public relations and marketing.
In 1999, Cheryl began working with SCCF in a volunteer capacity. She was part of the leadership team that successfully undertook three land acquisition campaigns in two years. Now, as a consultant, she works closely with the SCCF board of trustees and staff to coordinate SCCF's Annual Fund Drive and capital campaigns. She also works with SCCF members on planned giving, leading to the growth of the Legacy Funds, SCCF's endowment program.
She and her husband, Marc, are full-time residents of Sanibel Island. Cheryl sits on the board of directors of The Sanibel Captiva Trust Company. Her prior board service has included the Community Foundation of Sanibel-Captiva and the South Florida National Parks Trust.
Wendy was with Lee County Parks and Recreation for 11 years, working her way from one of the County’s community centers to the special events team, and finally ending up in the Fiscal Department. After spending 3 years in the Fiscal department, she left Parks and Recreation and joined SCCF in 2005 as an administrative assistant to the Business Manager, assisting her as well as handling the data entry in the fundraising database. When the Business Manager retired several months later, Wendy was promoted to Business Manager.
She attended Edison College (now Florida SouthWestern). Wendy and her family have been Southwest Florida residents for over 25 years.
A New York native, Karen moved to Sanibel in 2000. She spent 20 years in New York City, working for several major hotels before moving into direct marketing. After relocating to Sanibel, she edited and wrote for several weekly Sanibel and Captiva publications before joining SCCF in 2007.
Alex, a native Floridian, has worked in the environmental field for over ten years. She has worked as an endangered species biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, receiving the Employee of the Year Award for proactive work. She has also been an adjunct professor of biology and environmental science, ran the Florida Panther Campaign for the national Sierra Club, and is a photographer on the side.
She received her bachelor's degree in Psychology and Environmental Policy from the University of South Florida, and her master's in Conservation Biology from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. While conducting research on Mountain-pygmy possums in Kosciuszko National Park, she and the UNSW research team were featured in Australian Geographic's 100th Anniversary Edition for innovative approaches to species conservation.
Jeff received a B.A. in Geography from the University of South Florida. Upon graduation, he lived on Andros Island, Bahamas for nearly two years where he worked as an environmental educator at Forfar Field Station. It was there that he developed his interest in the marine world and was trained as a SCUBA dive master. Jeff then moved to the Florida Keys where he began working on a charter fishing boat eventually earning a Coast Guard masters license. From the Keys Jeff moved to Seattle and then Ithaca, NY, where he continued operating boats and worked for a small craft brewery. Two winters out of Florida was all it took for him to find his way to Sanibel and SCCF. At the Marine Lab, Jeff's boating and diving skills are put to good use. Since late 2005, he has been studying the effects of large freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee by monitoring seagrass growth rates and the usable light they receive. Jeff has also been involved with the installation and servicing of the RECON sensors.
Ashley Graham is a native Floridian, who received her B.A. in Environmental Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. During her time at FGCU she interned with Rae Ann Wessel, who is the Natural Resource Policy Director at SCCF. With Rae Ann, Ashley worked on reporting the weekly conditions of the Caloosahatchee, developing fact sheets, researching land use and GIS, creating data, attending policy conference calls and meetings, as well as participating in post legislative session bill/issue reviews and webinars. Ashley also volunteered with Amanda Bryant, the previous Sea Turtle Program Coordinator, digging up hatched nests and recording the contents of each nest.
At Florida Gulf Coast University Ashley worked with Gopher Tortoises using telemetry satellite tracking as well as, assessing population density in urban environments before working for SCCF.
Dr. Eric Milbrandt began his career in marine science in N. California at Humboldt State University. His first course in Invertebrate Zoology at the Telonicher Marine Laboratory in Trinidad helped to inspire a career in marine science. He received an REU fellowship to study marine science using molecular tools at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Center for Great Lakes Research with Dr. Chuck Wimpee. The internship led to a directed senior undergraduate research project on rocky intertidal seaweeds under the direction of phycologist, Dr. Frank Shaughnessy.
Because of the positive experiences and valuable tools both in the lab and in the field, Dr. Milbrandt decided to pursue a graduate degree in marine science. He was accepted at the University of Oregon to study at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Charleston, OR. During his Ph.D., Eric received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve to study the microbial ecology of the South Slough Estuary. While writing his dissertation, he was offered the position of Research Scientist at SCCF. He returned to OIMB to defend in the spring of 2003 and has been contributing to the SCCF ever since.
During his transition to Florida, Dr. Milbrandt established several permanent mangrove forest plots to study the effects of human activities on mangrove reproduction, recruitment and forest structure. He has published numerous peer-reviewed journal articles on the recovery of mangroves after hurricane disturbance and the effect of sea level rise on black mangrove recruitment. He has also led several grant-supported efforts to restore the tidal hydrology to Clam Bayou, then to enhance and restore mangrove shorelines. Part of the effort was in collaboration with Drs. Loren Coen, Steve Geiger and others to build oyster reefs and conduct extensive mapping and monitoring.
At SCCF, Dr. Milbrandt has been instrumental in the establishment of RECON (River Estuary Coastal Observing Network) which is providing Real-time information to advance SCCF policies. This tool introduces the Marine Laboratory to difficult socio-economic challenges in the policy arena and helps support the collaborative meetings and influences of the Southwest Florida Stakeholders. RECON also enhances research at the lab including in numerous water quality studies around Sanibel and Captiva Islands and in cooperation with the USFWS in J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
In 2011, Dr. Milbrandt was named the third SCCF Marine Laboratory Director. He serves as a reviewer of manuscripts for Estuaries and Coasts, Limnology and Oceanography, Botanica Marina, the Journal of Wetland Ecology and Management, and Hydrobiologia. He is a Graduate Faculty at Florida Gulf Coast University and an affiliate member of the Coastal Watershed Institute.
After receiving a B.A. in Biology from the University of South Florida, Richard worked as a lab and field technician at Mote Marine Lab, the Rookery Bay Marine Lab, and Florida DER mainly doing water quality sampling and analyses. He received his M.S. from the Ecosystems Ecology division of the Environmental Engineering Sciences program at the University of Florida. For his master's thesis, he studied the effects of seagrass on sedimentation and constructed a simulation model of seagrass growth and its effect on currents and sedimentation. While at UF, Richard researched ecosystem effects of increased fresh water flow in Florida Bay. After graduating, he worked on a project showing effects of diverting fresh water flow on the Savanna River ecosystems. He then worked on a simulation model of the Chesapeake Bay as a Senior Faculty Research Assistant at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Environmental Lab. He received his Ph.D. from the Marine, Estuarine and Environmental Studies program at the University of Maryland, College Park, where his research was designed to increase the understanding of how water column nutrients affect seagrass health. After finishing his field and lab research, he started a postdoc with the Lake Okeechobee Research unit at the South Florida Water Management District, conducting microcosm research on the effects of submersed plants on nutrients and constructing a simulation model of submersed plant growth.
Research interests: Ecosystem role of seagrass beds, seagrass effects on water quality, sedimentation and nutrient cycling, sediment and water column effects on seagrass growth, correlation of seagrass bed size with ecosystem effects, effects of seagrass beds on water flow, enhancing nutrient removal ability of submersed plant beds.
Mark received his B.S. in Environmental Engineering from Purdue University. As an engineer for private industry, including AT&T in Virginia, he worked to control and minimize pollutants in wastewater, stormwater runoff and hazardous waste from large manufacturing facilities. In 1992he found much more satisfying employment at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) working with sea turtles, oysters and estuarine fishes. From VIMS he migrated to South Carolina where he worked with hard clams, leeches and other interesting marine creatures. As luck hadit he was then hired by the Marine Resources Research Institute, part of SCDNR where he participated in oyster reef research, headed their horseshoe crab program and helped with water quality monitoring in the ACE-Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). While in South Carolina, he received an M.S. in Environmental Science from the College of Charleston-Medical University of South Carolina’s joint graduate program. His thesis explored the secret life of horseshoe crabs in South Carolina, during which time he was a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Horseshoe Crab Management Plan development team.
He moved to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FL DEP), where he monitored and analyzed southeastern Florida’s waters using biological, chemical and physical indicators . His work also included taxonomy, data management, laboratory work and resulting publications.
The U.S. Peace Corps captured Thompson in 2005, where he spent three years in a tropical Philippine paradise teaching Coastal Resource Management (CRM) at a small college and developing a CRM research program. He and his numerous student researchers did baseline assessments of coral reef, seagrass and mangrove habitats as well as the state of local fisheries. Research included characterizing catch efficiencies of local gear typesand implementing least-impact fishpond management techniques. He also developed a CRM resource center complete with water quality lab,habitat assessment equipment, eight computers with GIS and statistical software, all connected to the Internet.
Thompson enjoys learning about nature and sharing his knowledge with others, with special interests in estuarine ecology and the impact of water qualityon biological communities. He dives (US EPA Research Diver Certification), kayaks, mountain bikes, and he lived aboard a 33-foot sloop for many years in SC and FL. He is an accomplished coastal navigator.
Leah is a native Floridian who grew up in Orlando and frequently visited beaches on the east and west coast of Florida including Sanibel Island. Enjoying the natural beauty of Florida’s coastal ecosystems inspired her to become a marine scientist. She completed her undergraduate graduate degree at the University of Central Florida and in 2013 she did an internship with the SCCF marine laboratory where she studied how fragmented algae responded to nutrient enrichment and monitored the relationship between seagrass and macroalgae around Sanibel Island.
After her internship at SCCF, Leah pursued her master’s degree at California State University, Northridge where she researched the effects of nutrient enrichment and ocean acidification on the macroalgal species Ulva. While in California, Leah became an active SCUBA diver and got her advanced open water and American Academy of Underwater Sciences diving certifications. Leah is interested in studying how climate change and nutrient enrichment affect the physiology and ecology of marine primary producers including macroalgae, microalgae, seagrass, and harmful algal species. As a research associate at the SCCF marine lab, she analyzes seawater samples for nutrients and supports research on harmful algal blooms, seagrass, and water quality.
A.J. received his B.S in Marine Biology from Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. While there he spent a semester studying abroad in Bermuda, at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, Inc. He returned to Bermuda after graduation to work as an intern in the Benthic Ecology Research Programme laboratory. The primary research he conducted there was assessing the effect of Bermuda's marine protected areas on fish population dynamics. He also assisted with coral, seagrass, and algae research.
A.J. is an avid scuba diver and holds his research diver certification through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. He is interested in all aspects of marine ecology with a special interest in fish population dynamics, fisheries enhancement, and protecting valuable marine habitats.
A.J.'s main area of focus at SCCF's Marine Lab is the RECON project. He has been responsible for the deployment, including the development of a custom mounting and retrieval system, of the RECON sensors. He is also responsible for the ongoing maintenance required to keep the network working, including data quality control.
Jenny's love of nature began during her childhood in the foothills and farmlands of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. She earned a B.S. in Biology with a double major in Theatre from Mary Washington College. Despite the seemingly incompatible fields, Jenny has brought them together in the art and science of horticulture. An intensive summer program in Landscape Architecture at Harvard spawned her love of outdoor design. This led to a graduate degree in Public Garden Management from Cornell. Jenny has also held internships in nursery management and garden maintenance at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, Washington and in exhibit development and design at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. In addition, she has been an environmental educator, working in subtropical marine ecology and leading students of all ages on educational snorkeling adventures.
Jenny developed a strong appreciation for subtropical flora and plant ecology while living in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys for several years. In 2010, Jenny was named Treasurer of the Association of Florida Native Nurseries. She is a member and the newsletter editor of the Coccoloba chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society; serves on the Lee County Extension Service horticultural advisory board and is an annual speaker for the Sanibel Master Gardener lecture series.
Starting at a young age, Becca fell in love with nature thanks to the exposure from her parents love of hiking, fishing, and many other outdoor activities. Becca graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Studies from Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana in May of 2009. Shortly after, Becca got an internship at the Native Landscapes and Garden Center. After falling in love with the local flora and fauna she got the opportunity to be hired on full time as the Native Plant Nursery Assistant in 2010. Since then, Becca heads up our Landscapes for Wildlife Housecall/Consultation Program as well as doing small scale design work, installation, and maintenance. She loves the chance to educate the public about the benefits of planting native plants and then being able to transform yards to a more wildlife friendly landscape.
Muffet has always been an avid naturalist and artist. Born and raised in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, she majored in Modern Dance at the University of Wisconsin. After graduation she taught dance in Arkansas. In the late 1970s, Muffet and her family arrived on Sanibel where she continued to teach dance and yoga. Wanting to know more about the island’s unique environment, she turned to the Native Landscapes & Garden Center where she is happy to be involved with native plants, wildlife and ecology.
A true Florida Native, Sue was born and raised in Central Florida. She received a degree in Business Science Information Technology and worked for several Fortune 500 companies as well as Governmental agencies. After visiting Sanibel for over 20 years, Sue finally moved full time to Sanibel in 2014. Her appreciation and love of the outdoors and native plants led her to volunteer at the SCCF Native Landscapes & Garden Center where she was later hired. Sue enjoys helping others learn more about our Island plant and wildlife communities and the role native plants hold in that delicate balance between our living space and the world around us.
Several high school courses initially sparked Emily's interest in landscape design and plant ecology. She graduated from Clemson University in 2013 with a B.S. in Environmental and Natural Resource Management complimented by a minor in Horticulture.Throughout college she worked at the South Carolina Botanical Garden where she had the opportunity to learn about the native habitats and plant communities of SC. During her time there, she gained experience in garden installation and maintenance as well. She began her internship at the SCCF Native Plant Nursery in the summer of 2014 and was hired the following summer to help maintain the grounds at the Bailey Homestead.
Rae Ann Wessel is a limnologist and marine scientist with 40 years of experience working in corporate, government, private and nonprofit sectors in South Florida. For the past 12 years she's served as the Natural Resource Policy Director for SCCF, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. Her policy, advocacy and outreach work brings sound scientific grounding to policy development, protection and restoration of water resources, critical habitats, land management, and fish and wildlife conservation at the local, regional, statewide and federal policy levels.
She has been actively engaged in Everglades and Caloosahatchee restoration issues for the past 24 years. In that time, she has been researching and identifying critical Caloosahatchee issues and building support for sustainable solutions. She is involved in oxbow research, historical documentation and education projects and guides river tours on the Caloosahatchee and its estuary.
Rae Ann serves as a: Commission appointee to the Conservation 2020 Conservation Lands Acquisition and Stewardship Committee (CLASAC) and Lee County Historic Preservation Board. She is a board member for the Everglades Coalition, representative to the Environmental Advisory Council for the Everglades Foundation, past appointee to Lee County's Local Planning Agency and a 1992 graduate of Leadership Lee County.
She has received numerous awards for her environmental work. In 2013 she was selected one of the Women Who Make Southwest Florida, received the Citizen of the Year award from the Sanibel Committee of the Islands (COTI) for her work as a “Tireless Scientist for the Environment” and the inaugural Charles Edgar Foster Conservation Education Leadership Award from the Audubon Society. In 2007 she received the Richard Coleman Aquatic Resources Award from the Florida Lake Management Society and in 1998 the Conservationist of the Year from Audubon of Southwest Florida.
Chris grew up on the southwest side of Chicago, IL. He had a strong interest in nature at a very young age, especially with amphibians and reptiles. His passion for all things slimy and scaled led him to the Chicago Herpetological Society where he was mentored by numerous knowledgeable members and visiting scientists. Chris has two Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees in Zoology and Computer Science from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIU) and a Master of Science (M.S.) degree in Environmental Science from Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU).
He began working at SCCF in 2002 and is the Director of the Wildlife Habitat Management Program and staff herpetologist. As land manager, he oversees SCCF's nearly 2000 acres of conservation land with the help of his field technicians. Prescribed burns, exotic plant removal, native tree planting, and other habitat restoration techniques are used to maintain functioning ecosystems on the islands. Chris is also the IT Manager for the Foundation.
Chris's current Sanibel wildlife projects are the SCCF Pine Island Sound Eastern Indigo Snake Project, the SCCF Diamondback Terrapin Project, and the SCCF Florida Box Turtle Project. Chris is also a coauthor on a new book (2014); "The Amphibians and Reptiles of Sanibel and Captiva Islands, Florida: A Natural History". He maintains an educational website on map turtles and is involved with several projects along the Gulf Coast with these riverine turtles. He is a member of the Turtle Survival Alliance, the IUCN/SCC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, a board member of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust, and an active member of the local herp society (Calusa Herpetological Society).
Victor Young grew up in Southwest Florida. At a young age he began assisting biologists from various organizations with wildlife surveys. Victor's passion for the outdoors and nature eventually brought him to SCCF where he started as an intern in the summer of 2005 in the Wildlife Habitat Management Program. Victor was hired as a full time Field Technician in summer 2006. Shortly after joining the SCCF team, he left for boot camp in the U.S. Coast Guard and was stationed in a reserve port security unit as a boat engineer and later as a small boat Coxswain. Victor utilizes his mechanical training he received in the Coast Guard to help maintain and fix equipment and vehicles. He also conducts fire line maintenance, treatment of invasive exotic vegetation, assists with prescribed fires, and conducts various other tasks at SCCF.
Dustin was born in Honolulu Hawaii in 1989. At a young age, he developed a passion for wildlife seeing his first panther up close at the age of 6, growing up on Alligator Alley in the Everglades where his father worked for J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge as a wildlife habitat and maintenance manager. Dustin went to school in Fort Lauderdale at Maritime Professional Training where he learned the skills to engineer on large vessels. Dustin started working with SCCF in March 2017. Working alongside Victor Young, utilizing the skills he received through various training, Dustin fixes and maintains the working order of the vehicles and equipment, exotics species removal, and maintains the fire lines on all SCCF properties.
After receiving a B.S from Virginia Tech in Biology, Kelly worked as a research technician in a Virginia Tech lab investigating how animals use the magnetic field to orient and navigate. Her strong interest in international conservation took her to South Africa to study baboons at Wildcliff Nature Reserve and then to Costa Rica to volunteer with a sea turtle nesting program.
Kelly started working for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Marine Turtle Conservation Program in 2007, where she helped manage all aspects of sea turtle conservation in South Carolina. One of the main components of the program involved coordinating over 30 projects (1,000+ volunteers) in the statewide sea turtle nest protection and stranding network. While working at the SCDNR she completed her Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy. Her thesis focused on using barnacle growth as an indicator of the onset and duration of Debilitated Turtle Syndrome in loggerhead sea turtles.
In the spring of 2013, Kelly joined a team of scientists on Long Island to characterize the response of endangered piping plovers to habitats created by Hurricane Sandy. Kelly accepted her current position as coordinator of the SCCF Sea Turtle Program in December of 2013.
Audrey is originally from coastal Connecticut. She graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a B.S. in wildlife conservation biology and management in 2006. For several years she worked a variety of seasonal jobs across the U.S. including the monitoring of various shorebird species throughout New England, controlling invasive plants by non-chemical means in California, and assessing habitat for Canada Lynx in Wyoming.In 2010 she began working with Virginia Tech on a project assessing the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on wintering Piping Plovers in coastal Louisiana and Texas. This project led to 2 more years of monitoring, banding, and re-sighting Piping Plovers, Least Terns, and Snowy Plovers in South Dakota and Nebraska for Virginia Tech. In 2013 she joined the staff at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in North Dakota. She split her time there between two projects. She spent fall and spring assessing migratory stopover habitat used by Whooping Cranes along the central flyway from the Canadian border down to Oklahoma. She spent summers monitoring, banding, and re-sighting nesting Piping Plovers and Least Terns on the Missouri River system and in the Alkali Lakes region of North Dakota and Montana.