Reef Check Staff

Jan Freiwald, PhD – Executive Director

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Jan Freiwald is the Executive Director of the Reef Check Foundation. Jan has deep expertise in reef community ecology, marine management, citizen science and marine conservation. Prior to becoming Executive Director, Jan led the Reef Check California program for eight years. He has grown this program into a statewide marine protected area monitoring network of citizen scientists. Jan is responsible for implementing a climate change research project for the Reef Check California program, which is studying the effects of ocean acidification and hypoxic zones on the reefs and kelp forests along the California coast. He studied biology in Germany before receiving a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from the University of California Santa Cruz. Prior to joining Reef Check, Jan obtained a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of California Santa Cruz where he used approaches ranging from acoustic telemetry, to community surveys to genetic analyses to investigate kelp forest community ecology and marine protected area design.

Dania Trespalacios – Tropical Program Director

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Dania Trespalacios is the Director of Reef Check's Tropical Program. She leads Reef Check's global network of coral reef citizen scientists, supporting and strengthening the work of Reef Check EcoDivers, Trainers, Coordinators, and partners in our mission to protect coral reefs. Dania has worked on marine conservation for more than a decade, contributing to ocean science, policy and management at various government, non-profit and international organizations. Dania has degrees in Biology and Political Science from New College of Florida, and a Master of Environmental Science from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. When she is not working to protect the ocean, she is often found in it.

Jenny Mihaly – Operations Manager

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Jenny Mihaly, born and raised in Southern California, graduated from UCLA in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Biology. In her senior year, she spent a quarter with other UCLA students at the Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay, California where she studied sea anemones and flatfish. In 2003, Jenny got her SCUBA certification in beautiful Maui. She looks forward to getting more dives under her belt. Jenny currently works out of Reef Check's headquarters office in Marina del Rey.

Selena McMillan, PhD – Southern California Regional Manager

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Selena McMillan has been involved in marine ecology and research for over 14 years. While an undergrad at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Dr. McMillan began working for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) as a subtidal technician, organizing and performing long-term subtidal monitoring efforts along the California coast. Selena left this position to pursue her master's at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory (MLML) where she completed a subtidal thesis examining the trophic interactions between giant kelp and snails. While at MLML, she worked as a research assistant for Dr. Rick Starr at California Sea Grant where she was integral in organizing a Data-Poor Fisheries workshop that brought together scientists, policy makers and fishermen from all over the world. Recently, she completed her PhD at The University of Auckland in New Zealand examining herbivorous fishes in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the temperate reefs of New Zealand. She is excited to be returning back to her roots in California and diving back into ocean monitoring.

Dan Abbott – Central California Regional Manager

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Dan Abbott, the Central Coast Regional Manager, has been involved with Reef Check California as a volunteer and part-time instructor since 2005, and started working for Reef Check full-time in September 2014. Dan received a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Economics and Policy from UC Berkeley, an interdisciplinary program focused on marine resource management from both scientific and economic aspects. While at Berkeley Dan became an AAUS scientific diver. Most recently, Dan worked as a biologist for Tenera Environmental where he oversaw a large number of monitoring projects in San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and along the California Coast. Additionally Dan spearheaded Tenera's successful application into AAUS and oversaw their dive program as their Diving Safety Officer. Dan is an active NAUI Instructor, a trained Outdoor Emergency Care Technician, and is a first aid and CPR instructor.

Tristin McHugh – Northern California Regional Manager

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Tristin McHugh, the North Coast Regional Manager, began working for Reef Check California in March of 2018 and is based in Fort Bragg. Tristin received her Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology and Legal Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2013. Following graduation, Tristin assisted and led a number of projects spanning the Pacific Northwest, and gained an appreciation for the divers and researchers involved in protecting such an invaluable resource through the collection of long-term data sets. In 2015, Tristin left Santa Cruz to pursue her Master's in Biology degree at San Diego State University (SDSU), where she focused on how storm disturbances impact subtidal algal communities, and how the physiology of red algae structures community assemblages. In addition to her thesis, Tristin was a Divemaster and Boating Safety Officer for projects based Alaska and Mexico, and was the Graduate Student representative for the Diving Control Board at SDSU until her graduation in December 2017. Tristin is ready to get back in her native California waters, especially in the North Coast.

Katie Kozma – Southern California Training Coordinator

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Katie received her Bachelor of Science in Biology, with an emphasis in Marine Biology, from San Diego State University. While completing her undergraduate studies, she earned her AAUS scientific diver certification, conducted independent research on fish foraging strategies in eelgrass habitats, and performed eelgrass habitat assessment surveys. Following graduation, Katie spent three years teaching marine biology in San Diego to K-12 students from across the United States and visiting students from around the world. Before joining the Reef Check team in 2016, Katie worked as a research associate for a coastal engineering consulting firm where she carried out field research and conducted environmental impact assessments on major reef restoration projects along the California coast. Her past experience also includes employment at a Southern California aquarium where she provided marine science education to the public, assisted with animal husbandry, and carried out tank diving as a member of the Dive Team. Katie earned her Dive Master certification in June of 2015. Katie's responsibilities with Reef Check include organizing and conducting research surveys throughout the Southern California region and training volunteer divers in the California monitoring protocol. She is also responsible for the Reef Check California Youth Education Program. Katie develops the youth program curriculum and provides exciting educational experiences for all participants, combining meaningful classroom activities with hands-on demonstrations in the field.

Kate Vylet – Climate Change Research Coordinator

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Kate Vylet, the Climate Change Research Coordinator, grew up a landlubber in Southern California. It was while learning to scuba dive in the Central Coast's green waters at the University of California at Santa Cruz that she developed a passion for the sea and the life teeming beneath its waves. She went on to graduate as an AAUS Scientific Diver and NAUI Divemaster with a Bachelor of Science in Ecology and Evolution and a Bachelor of Art in Photography. Kate then became involved with PISCO, the Partnership for the Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, as a scientific diving technician, performing subtidal monitoring surveys up and down California's coastline and implementing various marine research projects. She currently works on Reef Check's climate change research and assists with its monitoring program in Central California. When she's not diving for science, Kate spends her underwater time capturing marine life through the lens of photography and videography.

Jerry Suarez – Accountant

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Jerry graduated from the University of Redlands with a Bachelors Degree of Science in the field of Accounting and is currently authorized to represent taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service under the designation of Enrolled Agent. After graduation Jerry took a position with the treasury as an IRS Field Agent which he left to take a position in a public accounting firm, and later a position of Financial Coordinator at the medical facility "A Touch of Care" for a period of 6 years. Since 1991 Jerry has been self employed and providing public accounting and tax representation services.

Hannah Strong – Bookkeeper

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Hannah Strong grew up in Northern California where she was educated on the importance of environmental conservation from an early age. From 2004 to 2007, she volunteered with the Golden Gate Raptor observatory, identifying and recording migrating raptor populations over the Marin headlands. She taught herself bookkeeping and accounting skills while working at a tech startup in Los Angeles, then began work at Reef Check in 2016. She is an avid lover of the ocean and the natural world.


Gregor Hodgson, PhD – Founder & Executive Director


Gregor Hodgson is the Executive Director of Reef Check. Dr. Hodgson is a coral reef ecologist, who received his bachelors in 1979 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. From 1980-1982, he volunteered with the US Peace Corps in the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Cebu City, Philippines, and earned a PhD in zoology in 1989 from the University of Hawaii. Subsequently, Dr. Hodgson worked in Hong Kong where he served as the Environmental Sciences Manager for Binnie Black & Veatch, carrying out environmental impact assessments and baseline ecological surveys of coastal and marine areas. He designed and led integrated coastal management projects in China and Vietnam and also taught at two Hong Kong universities. From 2000 to 2004, Dr. Hodgson was a visiting professor at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and taught Environmental Science, International Coastal Management and Marine Conservation. He now works full time on marine conservation through Reef Check.