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Begin With Humility Erin Griffin

Clemson biological sciences major Erin Griffin followed her passion for marine science from Clemson, South Carolina, to the Florida Keys. In the process, she began a professional journey that can take her anywhere.

Explore Biological Sciences
Environmental portrait of biological sciences undergraduate Erin Griffin, inset into a landscape photo of a Key West pier and rocky shoreline with water in the distance. She wears a Clemson short-sleeve shirt and is smiling with her hand on her hip in front of a pole with hand-painted directional signage affixed to it that reads Wet Lab and classroom.
Preview image of student Erin Griffin, wearing a purple Clemson shirt and sitting in a studio. An arrow indicating a movie will play when clicked appears in the middle of the image. Preview image of student Erin Griffin, wearing a purple Clemson shirt and sitting in a studio. An arrow indicating a movie will play when clicked appears in the middle of the image.


Begin with Humility

Marine biology in South Carolina

"You think, when you’re in high school or just starting out in this field, that science is set in stone. But the point in science is there are some things you just don’t know. That’s why you’re doing science in the first place."

Imagine if your best job ever could be the one you got while you were still in college.

Clemson senior and Greenville, South Carolina, native Erin Griffin doesn’t have to ask if this is possible. Much to her surprise, she experienced the answer this summer in the small Key West town of Layton, Florida. There, at a waterfront marine research station — where she lived and worked with her professor and a team of other student biologists — she pursued answers about the ocean and its inhabitants.

She found her passion … and a career she can take anywhere.

Student Erin Griffin wears a white, short-sleeve Clemson shirt and is smiling and sitting on rocks with a pier and water in the background.
A Clemson team of three marine biologists sits at the back of a narrow boat. Scuba gear is in the foreground, and to the left of that, student Erin Griffin sits on the side of the boat, which is in motion. Everyone is looking out toward the turquoise blue water.

Did you know?

Clemson is R1 Classified as one of the nation’s most active research institutions,
Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

Science: a team job

Erin’s summer of oceanfront research began humbly, with a single novel parasite that she first studied as a junior while working in a Clemson-based lab. Her professor, Antonio Baeza, along with his Ph.D. student had just discovered it a year earlier.

Before she was even 21 years old, her groundbreaking scientific observations of the Carcinonemertes conanobrieni shed light on researchers’ understanding of the newly discovered organism.

Clemson continues seeking answers about this organism, allowing students to gain greater insight into the delicate marine ecosystems that make up the Earth’s oceans.

“We wake up early, we go out on the boat, and it takes all of us to support the research,” Erin says.

That’s because cataloguing the world’s species is an undertaking that requires many hands and even more hands-on learning experiences.

On any given day, her fellow students pursuing graduate work in the area might dive down to collect samples while Erin stays above water to receive those samples and store them to be processed back at the lab. Through her marine research experience in the Keys, Erin has become dive certified, and she’s become as comfortable working on water as she is on land.

It’s been a surprising and rewarding journey, Erin explains.

“It might not make sense that Clemson, in the Upstate of South Carolina away from the ocean, has this amazing marine biology experience. But, along with having the research station here in Long Key, there’s a lot of research and lab work that happens on campus," she says. "From Clemson, you can go anywhere! Anything is possible.”

Student Erin Griffin wears a dark, flowered dress as she presents marine research on a large screen to a group of onlookers, whose backs are to the camera. They are inside, but a large window behind Erin has a canopy of trees visible in the background.
A wide landscape of Lake Hartwell shows the water, rocky shoreline and trees.  Student Erin Griffin can be seen distantly, seated on the rocks overlooking the lake.

Undergraduate discovery leads to published research

The Keys Marine Laboratory, situated in the heart of the Florida Keys, is a full-service waterfront research and education field station where students can work, live and study for months at a time.

A 13-hour drive and 850 miles removed from Upstate South Carolina, it is here that the team of Clemson students spends their summer. Launching off piers in the morning, diving and collecting sea life into the late afternoon, and then returning to a simple waterfront lab, science takes shape around the clock. Open-air labs are filled with tanks, and microscopes are housed in an on-site indoor lab. 

This is where Erin spent her summer.

But the discovery she pursued in the Keys actually began months beforehand — in Clemson labs and classrooms with professor and evolutionary biologist Antonio Baeza. More than a year before she arrived in Key West, Erin worked with Baeza in Clemson, researching the species and studying the ecology of how it interacts with its host, the spiny lobster.

Biological sciences student Erin Griffin dives under water wearing a snorkel and mask, holding a long yellow stick that she is poking toward a rock where a lobster antenna is sticking out.

Did you know?

More than 70 percent of the world’s oceans are unmapped or unexplored. The demand for marine biologists who can do the work of exploration and discovery remains high.

Just two years earlier, Baeza had actually discovered the existence of the parasitic organism Erin was studying.

The worm her professor discovered, and that Erin is now researching, infests and kills the eggs of the Caribbean spiny lobster, which is cause for concern. If spiny lobsters are declining in abundance, the whole $1 billion industry and coastal communities along the entire Caribbean basin could be adversely affected.

It was in a Clemson lab that Erin made her groundbreaking discovery: how the worms survive. Erin had become familiar with how the organism acted normally, but one day, when she peered into her microscope, she noticed something unusual: The worms were fragmenting themselves when they had an injury. And then they were able to regrow their own body. Their ability to regenerate could have many implications for the future of the spiny lobster, which is what the research group continues to study.

Professor Antonio Baeza and his team of student researchers are standing on a pier looking at the camera, holding air tanks and diving gear, with a boat and water in the background.
An up-close image of a person's hands, wearing yellow gloves, holding a lobster underwater. A yellow tickle stick and a net are lying on the ocean floor in the foreground.

“Thanks to Erin, an undergrad, we know that these worms are able to do this remarkable behavior,” Baeza says. “Without her contributions, we might not have known about this unique behavior that helps us better understand what’s happening in our oceans.”

Declining water quality, global climate change and environmental degradation all pose a threat to commercially lucrative fishing species. But so, too, does the worm Clemson is studying. It was a huge discovery, and it was made by an undergraduate student.

“From a research point of view, you have to rely on your teammates. We’re all in this learning together. I like knowing the answers, but that’s why we’re here. You don’t know the answers, and you have a whole team to help find them with you.” – Erin Griffin

Choosing a degree, pursuing a dream

Growing up in Greenville, Erin first discovered her interest in biology and fascination with aquatic environments when she acquired a pet betta fish, who she named Cleo, after the fish from one of her childhood favorite movies, "Pinocchio.” Owning Cleo led her to want to learn more about how to care for fish, and eventually that led her to start studying marine environments.

She’s continued that evolution throughout her time at Clemson, and her confidence has grown alongside her knowledge.

“When I got here at the beginning of the summer, I was someone who was studying marine biology,” Erin says. “The work that we’ve done here and the things we’ve discovered have made me realize that I’m more than a student. I’m a marine biologist, and I’m a scientist. This isn’t just what I’m doing: It’s who I am.”

Explore Degree Programs
A group of students sits at a picnic table eating Key Lime Pie on the beach.

Heading into her senior year at Clemson, she appreciates the opportunities she had earlier in her undergraduate career that led to her current opportunities. She was taking an invertebrate biology class as a sophomore, and at that time, many classes were still remote or online.

She was eager for hands-on research. She couldn’t imagine how she was going to get it.

“I went to Dr. Baeza on Zoom and said, ‘Is there any way I can get more involved?’ And that’s how I got connected with his Creative Inquiry, which is this incredible combination of engaged learning, cross-disciplinary interactions and undergraduate research that’s truly unique to Clemson,” Erin recalls.

Available in every major and every program, students can even get involved in a Creative Inquiry that’s outside their major. The common tie is that team-based investigations are led by faculty mentors, and usually they last a year or more. Clubs and extracurriculars have also been instrumental to Erin’s college experience. When she’s not exploring the ocean, she’s observing the night skies as a member of the University’s astronomy club.

Creative Inquiry

50,000 undergraduates have participated in Creative Inquiry since its start in 2005.

Annual Student
Research Projects

More than 400 CI projects are conducted each year, with 450 faculty mentors.

Creative Inquiry
> 500
Clubs and
available to students

Dr. Baeza’s invertebrate biology class introduced her to a paper on the sociology of shrimp, and that led to even more interest and involvement. Then he put her in touch with Natalie Stephens, a graduate researcher whom she ended up working with during her summer research experience.

“I presented at three different conferences before I ever came to Key West,” she says.

Undergraduate student Erin Griffin and graduate student Natalie Stephens stand at an outdoor wet tank while Natalie holds a lobster, wearing yellow gloves.

Marine biology in any city

If you want to do what you love every day, it’s a matter of knowing what your school offers, Erin says.

“I didn’t know Clemson had such a big marine science program, and there are plenty of specific classes you can take to reach your goals,” she says. “For me? Marine ecology has helped me go along the path I wanted to take.”

In short, she says: With Clemson, all things are possible.

“If there’s a will, there’s a way. If you want to study marine science? Do it! Find the classes you want to take. Apply for a grant. Go after what you want.”

A blurred photo of a masked swimmer wearing a snorkel whose head is just above water.

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