16-year-old collaborates with the Research Lab at Loggerhead Marinelife Center

Madison Toonder proves curiosity has no age limit

Nicole Montogmery, LMC’s hospital coordinator, shows Madison Toonder the Center’s advanced rehabilitation capabilities.

When Madison Toonder started to feel bored in her high school classes, she knew there had to be more. More to learn, more to see, more to do. So when Toonder wrote a bill to Florida Congress at age 12 that offered better protection for manatees, and another one at age 14 pleading for oyster protection, her family wasn’t surprised.

Now, the rising junior’s passion for scientific research and conservation has driven her to study sea turtle health with the Research Laboratory at Loggerhead Marinelife Center.

“Throughout my life I was always interested in conservation,” says Toonder. “I wrote the manatee bill in seventh grade because it was something I was passionate about. It felt like I could change those environmental issues.”

During the middle of ninth grade, Toonder started to feel unchallenged in her public high school, so her parents pulled her out. Now she’s a student in Stanford University’s Online High School (concentrating on biotechnology and medical research). That means Toonder can focus on her passion for research and conservation.

The 16-year-old’s research projects (conducted outside of school hours) prompted her to contact various labs for guidance and mentorship, including Loggerhead Marinelife Center, the University of Florida and the University of Miami.

One thing led to another, and now Toonder is studying sea turtle health parameters, including stress, with Dr. Justin Perrault of the Research Laboratory at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, Dr. Nicole Stacy of the University of Florida and Dr. Carolyn Cray of the University of Miami. When all is said and done, Toonder will be listed as a co-author on resulting peer-reviewed publications.

“I reached out to everyone I could find,” says Toonder. “At first, a lot of people didn’t want to help me, but when I found these scientists that supported my work, including Dr. Perrault at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, I felt more confident in what I was doing.”

Toonder is also conducting a study on immunobiology (immune system responses) in green sea turtles impacted by fibropapillomatosis (FP). Through her work, she hopes to discover a better treatment option besides traditional tumor removal, rehab and release. Because alligator blood rejects HIV, herpes simplex viruses and other bacteria strains, Toonder believes she can use the blood to reduce FP in sea turtles.

Toonder may only be 16, but Dr. Perrault says his first phone conversation with her only confirmed that she was more than mature enough to participate in the Center’s collaborative research project.

“You could sense her passion for research and how well thought-out she is,” says Dr. Perrault. “She’s also a natural in field research. In the scientific field, we believe collaboration is important. Nobody knows everything there is to know about sea turtles, so by working together, we can learn from one another and produce better research.”

Through Toonder’s natural ability for working in research she has also garnered numerous local, state and regional awards. Add that to the bills she’s written, the numerous extracurriculars (writing for her school’s newsletter and leading the Pre-Veterinarian Club, to name a few) and the publications she’ll have published with LMC, the University of Florida and the University of Miami, and you’ll know one thing’s for sure – this girl is going places.

“When you’re young it can sometimes feel like adults don’t get your passion or understand why you care,” says Toonder. “That’s why it’s important to reach out to whoever you want to. You never know how they can help you live out your dream.”