Sanctuary Staff

Sanctuary staff standing behind a table as GP holds up his retirement cake


Michelle Johnston
Sanctuary Superintendent, Acting Research Coordinator

Dr. Michelle Johnston joined the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary team in 2012, and has been with the sanctuary program since 2010. She has served in a variety of roles, including marine ecologist within the headquarters science division, and both research ecologist and and research coordinator at FGBNMS. Michelle also served as acting deputy superintendent at National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. Michelle brings a wide variety of expertise across multiple fields of sanctuary management, including applied science, outreach, and community engagement. She is a NOAA dive master, and has expertise in coral reef ecology and invasive species management. Michelle has previously been a scuba dive team member at the Seas Aquarium in Florida, a sea turtle field biologist in South Carolina, as well as a marine educator and surf instructor in North Carolina, Australia, the Bahamas and Hawaii.

Michelle's academic studies started at University of North Carolina-Wilmington in marine biology, where she rehabilitated sick and injured sea turtles, and continued at the University of South Carolina where she completed her M.S. and Ph.D. in Environmental Health Science researching bacterial pathogens in coastal waters. After graduate school, Michelle was awarded a NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy fellowship with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Learn more about Michelle Johnston | Research Ecologist



Irene Olivares-Arthur
Administrative Program Specialist

Irene Arthur joined the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary team in 2001. As the sanctuary's Administrative Program Specialist, she is responsible for providing primary program support in the areas of administration, budgeting, procurement and fiscal planning for the sanctuary.

Irene develops annual budgets, tracks and verifies budget status, prepares periodic status reports, analyzes and manages fiscal year procurement actions and prepares acquisitions for technical contract services. She also manages administrative record-keeping and prepares travel arrangements for sanctuary staff. Irene is a 1988 graduate of Texas A&M University having earned a BS in Psychology and Accounting.


Kelly Drinnen
Education & Outreach Specialist

Kelly Drinnen joined the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary team in August 2004. As Education Specialist, she is responsible for public communications such as the sanctuary website, social media, email lists and informational flyers and brochures. She also conducts workshops and presentations.

Prior to working for the sanctuary, Kelly worked in informal science education at Moody Gardens and Sea World of Florida, as well as two years as a 4th grade teacher in South Houston. Kelly is also part of the sanctuary dive team.

Taylor Galaviz (Affiliate)
Constituent Engagement Specialist

Taylor Galaviz joined the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary team in August 2023. As Constituent Engagement Specialist, she is responsible for interacting with the sanctuary's various constituencies. This includes serving as the Sanctuary Advisory Council coordinator, interfacing with local Ocean Guardian Schools, and supporting numerous education and outreach efforts.

Before working with the sanctuary, Taylor was an educator with Texas Parks and Wildlife at Galveston Island State Park where she engaged with diverse audiences, managed volunteers, and staffed community events.


Desda Sisson
Vessel Operations Coordinator

LTJG Desda Sisson, a NOAA Corps Officer, joined Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in December 2023 as the Vessel Operations Coordinator. Desda oversees all operations pertaining to the sanctuary vessel, R/V MANTA. Prior to this assignment she served two years aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster as a junior officer.

Prior to her appointment as a commissioned officer in the NOAA Corps, Desda was the Diving Safety Officer of Field Operations for the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA from 2016-2021. Desda holds a B.S in Marine Biology and Scientific Diving from Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata, CA. She is an accomplished diver and vessel operator, holding certifications as a NAUI Dive Instructor, an AAUS Scientific Diver and Instructor, CCR Air Diluent Diver and holds a 100-ton USCG license. 

Justin Blake (Affiliate)
Captain, R/V MANTA

Justin Blake, a 500-ton master captain and U.S. Coast Guard registered boat builder, joined Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in May 2018. Justin has a Bachelor degree from the University of Florida where he also earned his advanced certification in scuba diving. He is a member of several sailboat racing teams and in 2013 finished the Transpacific Yacht Race from Long Beach, California to Honolulu, Hawaii.

Born and raised in Florida and living for a decade in Southern California, Justin enjoys many water sports including surfing, kite-boarding & wake-skating. He has invested his entire life in the marine industry and enjoys working to help it be here for future generations to enjoy.


Olivia Eisenbach (Affiliate)
Research Specialist

Olivia Eisenbach joined the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary team in June 2022. She came from Auburn University where she conducted research on reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico as a research associate. She has a Bachelors of Science degree in marine biology from James Cook University and a Masters of Research in marine biology from the University of Plymouth. Olivia has a background in coral reef and fish ecology and has participated in research all over the globe. 

Jacque Emmert (Affiliate)
Research Specialist

Jacque Emmert joined the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary team in May 2022. She has a B.S in Marine Biology with a Scientific Diving minor from Cal Poly Humboldt University in Northern California. While in California, Jacque volunteered with Reef Check, supporting research of kelp forest ecosystems along the west coast. Later, she earned a Ph.D. in Marine Biology from Texas A&M University Galveston where she conducted research in underwater cave systems in Bermuda. Jacque has since supported the Texas Parks and Wildlife's Artificial Reef Program, served as a volunteer scientific diver for FGBNMS, and worked as a diving instructor through Texas Scuba Adventures.


Donavon French (Affiliate)
Research Specialist

Donavon French joined the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in early 2022 as a seasonal diver before stepping into a full time research specialist position later that year. As a NOAA research diver and camera specialist, he is responsible for the upkeep and management of the research team's scientific camera systems and making sure these cameras are ready for offshore diving. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University Galveston with a bachelors in Marine Biology. He is also a trained NAUI scuba diving instructor.

Ryan Hannum (Affiliate)
Research Specialist

Ryan Hannum joined the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary team in 2021. He obtained his B.S. in Biology at Oregon State University and completed other coursework pertaining to the zoo and aquarium industry. In 2015, Ryan began working at the Aquarium at Moody Gardens as a coral conservation biologist working with various institutions, such as Rice University, on coral-symbiodiniaceae associated relationships and ecological importance. He also worked as a partnered member of the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project captively housing and caring for 100 coral colonies endemic to the Florida Reef Tract that has in the last few years been attacked by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. During his tenure with Moody Gardens, Ryan served as a volunteer scientific diver for FGBNMS where he has been able to contribute his hands-on knowledge of coral biology to the benefit of the corals within the banks.

Ryan's focus is on  water quality monitoring and data analysis as part of the sanctuary's long-term monitoring efforts while continuing to provide knowledge and experience to a variety of other sanctuary projects. 


Josh Harvey (Affiliate)
Research Specialist

Josh comes from a unique background as a U.S. Army Guard flight paramedic/combat medic, paramedic, and firefighter, offering a unique skill set for the research team. Over the past five years, He has also been an active volunteer NOAA diver, crewed the sanctuary’s research vessel, and helped lead citizen science invasive species removals. Josh supports the FGBNMS research team as a mooring buoy specialist and research diver.

Marissa Nuttall (Affiliate)
Research Specialist

Marissa joined the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary research team in 2007. She manages the long-term monitoring program at Stetson Bank, supports mesophotic ecosystem research both within and around the sanctuary, and leads GIS support for research and management activities. Marissa also serves as the Unit Diving Supervisor for the FGBNMS dive unit and has coordinated and led multiple research expeditions utilizing SCUBA and remotely operated vehicles. She is a graduate of Texas A&M University at Galveston and holds a M.Sc. in Marine Biology.


Kelly O'Connell (Affiliate)
Research Specialist

Kelly O'Connell joined the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary team in 2018. Though originally from Chicago, she graduated from University of South Florida with a B.S. in biological science where she studied Symbiodinium-associated microbial communities and their role in coral reef resilience. She obtained her master's degree from the University of Miami where she investigated the association of water temperature anomalies with measurements of white plague in Orbicella coral species.

Prior to joining the FGBNMS team, Kelly assisted with long-term monitoring and data management at the National Park Service South Florida Caribbean Network. There she used decades of monitoring data to quantitatively define disease outbreak. After graduate school, Kelly worked as a research technician performing coral and fish surveys with NOAA Southeast Fisheries under the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program in the Florida Keys and the U.S Virgin Islands. As a sanctuary research specialist, she assists with the long-term monitoring of FGBNMS reefs and provides support for data analysis and various other research projects.