From the Saltwater Piers to Saltwater Dream
By Tiffany King
Cameron Atkinson, 21, has a definitive plan for life after college: dedicating his life to the preservation and restoration of fish habitats.
Atkinson is well on his way to becoming a marine fishery biologist. He will graduate this May from the College of Coastal Georgia with two degrees—a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences with a concentration in coastal ecology and a B.S. in environmental science.
His time at Coastal Georgia started in 2018 after earning an associate's degree in biology from Georgia Highlands College in his hometown of Rome, Georgia. Living in North Georgia, Atkinson felt that there weren't many options available to pursue a degree related to marine science or something similar. When he learned about the College's coastal ecology program, it not only provided a great location for instruction, but provided opportunities for research and an internship at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division in Sidney Lanier Park.
Atkinson's love for the ocean first started with an interest in saltwater fishing while on vacation with his family in Panama City.
"When I was a kid, I fished off the piers [in Panama City] and that got me falling in love with the ocean—especially fishing," he said. "I really wanted to do something with fisheries and that got me started on this path. Attending a lot of talks, listening to presentations, and reading papers helped hone my interest further."
In his future career, Atkinson wants to analyze fishery data to figure out the best form of restoration projects for different fish habitats. He gave an example of how the propeller from the Golden Ray cargo ship that overturned in St. Simons Sound last year has been repurposed as a fish habitat in the ocean.
"I want to use data to figure out where to place objects efficiently, so it can benefit the environment, instead of being thrown away as trash somewhere. I want to make sure we're doing restoration projects that will succeed in positively impacting fisheries," Atkinson said.
After graduation, Atkinson plans to attend graduate school, where he'll continue doing research about fisheries. He's currently involved with several projects and is looking forward to continuing to grow in his field. Atkinson is considering several graduate programs at different institutions such as the University of North Carolina at Chapell Hill and Georgia Southern University. He's already met with program advisors and visited campus labs to get an understanding of their research capabilities. Atkinson said he doesn't have a favorite program in mind but is more focused on funding that will be available for the kinds of research he wants to do. After graduate school, he hopes to work for a state or federal agency.
An Internship with the CRD
Atkinson did an internship at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division (CRD) last summer. He was awarded the Georgia Natural Resources Foundation Scholarship, which funded his internship with the CRD's Georgia Coastal Management Program. The program's mission is to balance economic development on the coast with the preservation of natural, environmental, historic, archaeological, and recreational resources. Atkinson had the flexibility to create his own schedule at CRD, which allowed him to not only work with the program but work and interact with other departments.
"I talked with other biologists, worked on fish habitats and fisheries, as well as the marsh," he said. "I co-authored a technical report that prioritizes sites for wetland restoration on the coast. It was a great opportunity to get a lot of field experience, lab experience, technical writing experience, and networking."
Atkinson co-authored the report with Jamie King of the CRD, who works with marsh health and monitoring. The CRD received a grant from the Army Corps of Engineers to identify restoration sites to help guide their funding, Atkinson said. This internship at the CRD has given Atkinson direct insight into the kinds of work he can do as a biologist.
Because of the internship, Atkinson also qualified for the Nathan Deal Conserve Georgia Natural Resources Foundation Scholarship. Atkinson was encouraged to apply for the scholarship through a chance meeting with Mark Williams, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
"He was in the CRD office and I was in my advisor's office just talking. I met him and he suggested that I apply—and I did. If the commissioner didn't point me in that direction, I wouldn't have known about it," Atkinson said. Atkinson was the sole recipient of the scholarship in the entire state of Georgia.
Looking Toward the Future
As Atkinson prepares himself to graduate and begin then next phase of his life, what he'll miss the most about the College will be doing research with students and professors.
"I've had the opportunity to do research with a number of students and two main professors—Dr. James Deemy (assistant professor of Environmental Science) and Dr. Tate Holbrook (assistant professor of Biology). Because I see the same students and we work with the same professors, it's like we're already in graduate school. I'll miss being able to do daily research with them," he said.
Atkinson has some advice to offer Coastal Georgia students coming up behind them. He advises students not to be afraid to try new things, even if it's uncomfortable.
"Don't let things that you consider to be hurdles stand in your way. Do your best to chase down those things in life," he said. "Pursue what you enjoy because you'll appreciate the hard work."
Atkinson truly believes in chasing after his dream and turning his love of the outdoors into a career. He shared that he had the opportunity to play collegiate football, but instead decided to choose a different path towards making his career dreams come true. With his work ethic and focus-driven passion, Atkinson is sure to make a positive impact in the environment for generations to come.
Atkinson is a member of several organizations such as the Golden Key Honour Society, American Fisheries Society, Ecological Society of America, and the Coastal Estuarine Research Federation.