Valerie Quintana

Magazine Journalism student
Valerie Quintana has written 7 posts for The Digital Bullpen

The pursuit of research: divers take major risks exploring Florida’s underwater caves

Exploring underwater cave Double Keyhole.

In the video, it looks really creepy, like another planet. Particles of life float in pitch-black chilly depths like tiny extra-terrestrials. In this uncharted territory, proper skill and training are necessary to witness this eerie and foreign silence.

For the cave divers in the video, USF professor James Garey and graduate student Damien Menning, it’s just another Thursday afternoon in North Florida, not outer space.

Underwater cave diving caters to a relatively small group–those who have specialized equipment, proper training and aren’t bothered with the dangers that lie beneath the limestone.

If something goes wrong with this type of diving, it can result in dire consequences. If the equipment fails or a sudden burst of panic occurs half a mile back into the labyrinth of twists and turns, the diver can’t just resurface. They must navigate their way back out to safety. This risky dive can lead to the worst-case scenario of decompression sickness, which can be fatal, or drowning.

Risks aside, these passionate divers thrive on the thrill of the unknown and the unexplored. Garey moved to Florida in the late 90s and started diving in local springs, sparking his interest in the biology of underwater caves. He has dived in anywhere between 50 and 60 different springs and sinkholes in Florida.

It has become one of the main projects in his life.

Garey and Menning preparing for their dive at Double Keyhole.

Garey has been monitoring Double Keyhole, an underwater cave just north of Hudson off the Gulf of Mexico, for almost six years. He travels to the cave every Thursday along with Menning and usually a third person who stays on the boat to be there in case of an emergency.

This is one of many salt marsh springs scattered along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This one in particular is close enough to be dived and studied weekly by Garey and Menning.

So if it is dangerous, why is it important to study these caves, and what exactly goes into the science of cave diving?

Underwater cave biology

Garey and Menning primarily focus their studies on the biological chemistry of the underwater caves, collecting samples to study after each visit.

“I’m most interested in the biology of the spring and how it affects water quality. There’s just so little known about them,” Garey said. “It turns out that this one little spring that we study can put out as much water as the Hillsborough River on a good day.”

The biology isn’t really well understood, many of the scientists today are not looking specifically at the bacteria. Instead, they are bringing nets out to catch the larger animals. Very few people are looking at more than one organism at a time.

“After one hour of diving, we then bring samples back to the lab,” Menning said. “It takes approximately 30 hours to process each sample. That’s going through water chemistry, DNA, reactions and then data analysis.”

Swiss cheese

“It’s amazing how Florida is just like a big chunk of Swiss cheese,” Garey said.

The limestone rock underneath much of Florida is full of holes that hold and clean our drinking water supply.  It doesn’t only create caves for diving. One of these underground caves can cause traffic jams, too, as it did when a sinkhole formed on Fletcher Ave.

“There’s a sinkhole that opened up near Fletcher recently,” Garey said “It was just a natural cavity in the rock since we live on limestone.”

This sinkhole didn’t cause extensive damage, though more serious cases could open up under buildings and homes.

“It’s a very common occurrence in Florida,” Garey said. ”There’s an issue right now with home insurance companies when a sinkhole opens up under somebody’s house and it causes damage. Most sinkholes don’t become giant open holes, but some can swallow part of the house and cause significant damage.”

There is no way to predict when a sinkhole will occur, since there are underwater caves spread throughout Florida that have yet to be discovered or fully studied.

The BP oil spill

When the major oil spill occurred last year, Garey and his partner closely monitored the water at Double Keyhole. They were not sure how far the oil was going to drift and whether it would adversely affect the water quality there.

“It’s a brackish spring and the interesting thing is when the tide goes up, the spring flows backwards, so Gulf water goes into the cave. We were hoping the Gulf oil spill would not bring oil filled waters back into this cave,” Garey said.

“If the water had been contaminated with oil, it would have gone straight into the fresh water supply and would have contaminated our drinking water.”

Garey has been cave diving for enough years to be confident in what he is accomplishing, along with Menning. Both have enough trust in each other to successfully complete these dives on a weekly basis.

There is much still to be discovered and the risks are there. But with experience, Gary doesn’t fear the dangers in his work as the benefits of his studies outweigh the risks.

Katelin Kaiser takes on animal rights at USF one duckling at a time

Kaiser in 2007 with one of her riding horses, Copperfield.

USF senior Katelin Kaiser has always loved animals. All types of dogs, hamsters, mice and rats were her pets when she was a child. At age 8 she started riding horses, but a serious car accident took away her equestrian dreams when she was 18.

Maybe that’s why she has emerged as a leading advocate for duck safety on the USF campus.

When Kaiser was 18, she was a passenger in a fatal car crash. Along with head trauma, she broke her neck and had to wear a “halo” for about seven weeks.

“I was originally in St. Joseph’s Hospital for about a week and then was transferred over to Tampa General’s Pediatric Rehabilitation program for about three months,” Kaiser said. “I basically had to relearn everything: walking, putting clothes on, feeding myself, tying my shoes.”

Her 10-year equestrian dream ended, which was tough for an animal lover who grew up riding horses. She created a strong bond with these animals and connected with them on a different level.

These days the animals she advocates – at least in the public eye – are the baby ducks wandering through the USF campus.

Kaiser had just left a meeting on campus when she witnessed a duckling stray away from its family and walk straight into a storm drain. She ran over to the drain as the duckling cried for its mother. She knew she had to do something.

“I called a good friend of mine, Susan Taylor. She’s a huge supporter of animal rights,” Kaiser said. “I told her [that] there’s a baby duck trapped and I had no idea what to do. She said she would be right there.”

Once Taylor arrived, the pair began to call places for help: USF’s Physical Plant, Campus Police, the Humane Society—all of which said to call the other.

After a few more calls, the Physical Plant sent out a worker to come help with the issue. A couple hours later, the worker arrived and tried to reel the duckling out with a stick contraption.

“She tried, but this didn’t help the situation. She told us it happens all the time, that it’s not a big deal, it’s just ducks,” Kaiser said. “They apparently get calls about this often, so it seems to be a reoccurring problem.”

Example of a storm drain that the baby ducks are falling into.

Finally, one student decided to take matters into his own hands by lifting the metal grate, which slipped out of his hands, just missing the duckling. Startled, the duckling went into one of the drain’s pipes.

After about three grueling hours of attempting to get the duckling out, even with Taylor climbing into the drain, the day ended without a rescue.

Kaiser is a member of Students Protecting the Environment and Animals through Knowledge. She took a course at USF on ethics that had a two-week concentration on animals, which sparked her empathy for the well-being of all animals. It also led her to become a vegetarian starting her freshman year.

“This all clicked with me and made sense,” Kaiser said. “If I wanted to live a life of respecting animals and treating them kindly, it seemed wrong I would be willing to eat them without a problem.”

She has not eaten meat in four years and feels great about the decision as her way to support animal rights. Even her 17-year-old sister recently became a vegetarian.

Kaiser makes it a point to respect everyone’s opinion and not push her views of vegetarianism on people. When you push someone into doing something they have no care, desire, or emotions about, the results are not the same.

When she witnessed what was happening on campus with the ducklings, she wanted to spread awareness to those who share her love for the ducks on campus.

Kaiser told her friend and fellow USF student, Lindsey Smith, what had happened. Smith then created the “Save the USF Baby Ducks” Facebook page.

Yet, one particular post on the page claimed the ducks are an invasive species that pollute the area and should be killed off either way.

This commenter was highly outnumbered by the many supporters of the ducks. One courageous supporter passionately rallied the group by posting in all caps, “We shan’t let them fall. United, we will stand up for our weaker feathered brethren.” This was amongst a flood of posts of support, such as photos taken by students of these ducklings around campus, along with people documenting the culprit storm drains.

Surprisingly, the ducks are technically an invasive species in Florida. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforces rules that control the population of these migratory birds, specifically the Muscovy ducks often seen around campus.

USF professor and ecological physiologist, Lynn Martin, said that although he’s no duck expert, he would not describe these ducks on campus as “invasive”, but instead as an “introduced” species. Introduced species are non-native and do not necessarily have a negative impact on the ecosystem.

“It makes sense to control them, but not in this manner,” Martin said. “Because it’s a live organism, there are mechanisms in order to remove such species in a more humane way.”

For Kaiser, whether they are an invasive species or not, these ducks deserve to have a chance to live.

Photo by Caitlin Monaghan

She enjoys seeing the ducks around campus and believes she’s not the only one.

“I just think all of the animals on campus are a part of USF. Seeing the support so far shows [that] people do care about the ducks and other animals on campus. They even have a USF squirrel page.”

Since the Facebook duckling page was created on September 7th, the members have steadily climbed over 1,000. Another USF ducklings page clocks in over 1,300 fans and the USF squirrels page reaches over 4,000 fans.

“I think of an animal, no matter what type, as sentient species that feel pain and can think,” Kaiser said. “Maybe not in the way that we think and communicate, but we still should have respect for these animals.”

Smartphones: A growing trend among college students

Smartphones have noticeably taken over in recent years with popularity rising at college campuses, this is no different for students here at the University of South Florida. Being a junior at USF, I have seen this growth in smartphone use over the years, as well as becoming an owner of an iPhone myself two years ago.

What exactly does “smartphone” actually mean? A very simplistic way to explain it would be that a smartphone is a cell phone that is no longer is limited to making voice calls. These phones offer advanced capabilities and make themselves out to be like mini-computers in the palm of your hand.

Walking around campus I see students texting, making phone calls and sending emails from their smartphones as they head to class or take a short break in between classes. When I’m in class, I see almost every student with their phones either at their desk or in their lap and the vast majority of them are using some variation of a smartphone. Among these devices, popular choices include the Droid, iPhone and Blackberry; all of these devices trying to compete for the title as the best technology on the market.

USF junior, Bianca Ramirez, never leaves home without her Blackberry and has noticed the popularity of their use on campus.

“When hanging out on campus, I definitely see more and more people using smartphones. Even my professors will talk about how much they love their Blackberry,” said Ramirez.

According to a study by Ball State University last year, a survey of 5,500 of their students found that 49% of them own smartphones, up from 27% when surveyed in 2009. The most popular smartphone among the devices was the iPhone.

I spoke with AT&T employee, Michael Lora, about his observations of smartphone sales among college students in the USF area.

“I sell a lot of iPhones at the store and a large amount of college students make up this group of customers,” explained Lora. “I think the younger generation is looking for the hottest and best technology on the market right now.”

In July of last year, USF Information Technology launched a free iUSF mobile application for students with iPhones. The application allows students login to Oasis, use a GPS map to get around campus, read bus schedules, read news and directories, sports schedules, among other useful features. Since it’s release versions have been made available for students who own Android and Blackberry devices.

The ease of acquiring free wireless on campus makes it even more convenient for students and faculty to use their smartphones. They can browse the Internet and check emails without the hassle of finding a free computer to use.

“I constantly check my email on my iPhone throughout the day, it’s just as easy to check my text messages as it is to check my email on my phone,” said USF freshman Molly Alexander.

Beyond being able to check emails and social networking, the USF Health’s College of Medicine launched the IDPodcasts Mobile Viewer spring of last year, which is noted as the first infectious diseases mobile phone application in the State of Florida University System. The application allows the streaming of podcasts to iPhones through a WiFi connection. It is a free application with the latest content and information on infectious diseases.

When conducting further research on this topic, I wanted to speak to students on campus that happen to not own a smartphone and see what their perspective is on the subject.

“Honestly, I’ve seriously considered getting a smartphone but I really can’t afford the cost of the phone and the plan. If I had enough money I would have one. My friends all have smartphones and make fun of the fact that I still have my old Nokia phone,” said USF junior Austin Cox.

No matter which way you look at it, one cannot deny the rising popularity of smartphones. Whether students are using their smartphones for school purposes or socializing with friends, this apparent staple in today’s college student’s life boasts convenience and the ability to stay connected on the go.

Audio clip with USF senior Angela Talarico about her thoughts on smartphones and their growing popularity:

Interview with newly elected president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers

The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) at the University of South Florida is described on their website as “the source for quality Hispanic engineers and technical talent.” They also state that Hispanics are the fastest growing minority group today in the US with SHPE as the largest technical organization for Latinos.

Photo Credit: Juan Pablo Cardenas (SHPE)

I spoke with Juan Pablo Cardenas, the newly elected president of SHPE for the 2011-2012 year, who is a civil engineer major here at USF.

Valerie Quintana: Do you have meetings every week on campus?

Juan Pablo Cardenas: We do, we have a meeting every other week where we have workshops and meetings with companies to improve the skills of our members.

VQ: Are the meetings all in Spanish?

JPC: No, everything is done in English because we also have many members that are not Hispanic, and also since it is a professional organization we try to keep it that way as much as we can.

VQ: About how many members does SHPE have currently?

JPC: As of right now, we have about 120 active members.

VQ: What countries do the members come from?

JPC: Well mostly we have people from Hispanic countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and Nicaragua, but we also have members from places like Germany and India.

VQ: So you are Colombian right? Were you born there?

JPC: Yes, I moved to the US about seven years ago.

VQ: Do you like it better there?

JPC: Well honestly I was a kid when I was there so it’s hard to compare with the life I have here right now but I like it here a lot and I’ve made my life here already. I would really like to go visit but I love my life here.

VQ: Was it hard learning English?

JPC: For me it was hard at the beginning even after I had English classes for many years back in Colombia, but after you start going to school you pretty much have to learn and with friends and classes you learn very quick.

VQ: What advice would you give to someone who has English as a second language wanting to attend college here?

JPC:  I would tell them that they should try their hardest, not to be scared of the language barrier because they can overcome it. Don’t take it as an obstacle but as a strength instead because they already know another language that can be a great skill. Also there are many tools, people and organizations that can help them with any problems they encounter in their college careers.

VQ: What kinds of tasks go into being the president for SHPE?

JPC: As president I am in charge of overseeing the other officers and provide them with leadership and administrative guidance. Also being the face of the organization in events, meetings, conferences, etc. I’m also in charge of the communication and relations with other organizations in USF.

VQ: Do you have any events coming up?

JPC: Well next week we have a gala banquet on Tuesday at 5pm, we will be presenting the new board and giving awards to some of our members. Everyone is invited if you want to come by and see our organization. It will be Tuesday, April 26 in the MSC ballroom. That will be our last event for this year.

Check out the official website and facebook group for more information on SHPE.

Spotlight: Cuban American Student Association (CASA)

The Cuban American Student Association at USF was created to promote a student-led movement focused on promoting a pluralistic and democratic Cuban society and to unite students for a free Cuba. The club abbreviation CASA translates to “home” in Spanish, the native language of Cuba. CASA acts as a home away from home for Cuban students. The organization is open to all students who want to preserve the culture and spread awareness about the issues of a country only 90 miles away from Florida. [Image Credit: CASA]

“We are still a relatively new organization at USF, so we are trying to increase our membership and get our name out there,” said CASA president Zasha Garcia.

CASA is hosting Bulls for Human Rights coming up next week on April 26th from 6-10 pm. This event is similar to the event they had last year, though this year they have included more charities for the event: World Vision, Tom Shoes, The Pulsera Project and Cell Phones for Cuba.

“We are trying to raise awareness about disparities that happen worldwide,” said Garcia.

CASA at USF currently has 150 registered members and meets every Thursday at 5:30pm at the Marshall Student Center, Room 2702 .

  [Image Credit: CASA]

Ciudad Juarez: The other side of globalization

Photo credit: LASA

Ciudad Juarez native Veronica Leyva Thursday told of the hardships of her community at the border of Mexico and Texas, battles involving drug trafficking and violence driving a conflicted, militarized state of social struggle.

Leyva has spent the last ten years working in the maquiladora industry and has been organizing workshops in her community for the past fifteen years. She conducts workshops on worker’s and women’s rights and justice for the victims of the femicides and spoke at the USF Marshall Center.

In her native Spanish, Leyva shed light on this important issue with the help of translator Corry Banton,

“In the last couple of years, Ciudad Juarez has been seen in the eyes of the world as one of the most violent cities in the world,” said Leyva.

Worsening conditions permit high levels of violence giving the city a reputation of frequent murders, specifically against women. The chaos of drugs, guns, and violence have overwhelmed the border city stemming from as early as the 1960s.

“I think the most important thing is it doesn’t matter if it’s men, if it’s women, if it’s 500 people or if it’s 1,000 people. Even if just one or two people are deprived of life, are not given the attention or the life and justice that is deserved,” explains Leyva, “It is important for us to build social networks. We can’t do it alone. We need one another. This is the reason I am here today.”

This event was presented by: The Mexico-US Solidarity Network, Latin American Students Association, Mexican American Students Association, Feminist Student Alliance, Students for Social Justice Institute for the Study of Latin America, Caribbean Department of Sociology, Department of Anthropology, Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.

Multicultural affairs at USF

Photo Credit: Multicultural Affairs

Hey everyone! Welcome to my multicultural beat blog where I will be covering meetings, events, and feature information for the University of South Florida Multicultural Affairs. Within the USF community there are a diverse array of student organizations with cross-cultural interaction as well as overall community support. The multicultural affairs community offers 31 cultural groups that promote camaraderie and integration by participating regularly in training programs, events, committees, and retreats.

Not only do these organizations foster geographical ethnic groups, they also include a group called Safe Zone Ally, which creates an atmosphere for support of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning individuals in the USF community. The GLBTQ group educates others and advocates those a part of the community.

Anyone who is interested in joining any of the organizations can contact the office by phone at (813) 974-5111, by e-mail at or visit the office of multicultural affairs located at the Marshall Student Center Room 3300, open M-F 9AM-5PM.

If you would like to attend a general informative multicultural community meeting this spring semester, you can do so on Wednesday, Apr 6th or Apr. 20th from 5:30PM-6:30PM.

Click here for a list of the multicultural organizations USF currently offers and check out the upcoming meeting times and location here.

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