One day in 2006 I got up the courage to really become a marine scientist. Before that, I seriously doubted I could or would become a marine scientist, even though I devoted over 1,600 hours of research volunteering with UC Santa Cruz’s Marine Science Institute and The National Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle, WA. Ever since I was 10, I wanted to read about, be near, and think about whales and dolphins and how I could save them from extinction. I weaved together internships in high school and coursework in college. However, I was still deeply afraid of pursuing my dream of studying whales and dolphins, afraid of rejection from graduate programs, afraid of failing hard. Yet, on this particular day in 2006 during an afternoon editing photos of whale flukes [at NMML] and enjoying continued conversations with my office-mates (science sisters), created clarity and motivation in me. I was inspired to take action by their stories. I found my inner courage and slowly let go of fear.
This ultimately meant leaving Seattle for a graduate program on the central coast of California. I was eager to combine my marine mammal research studying whales, dolphins, seals, and sea otters with broader, applied research and analysis skills through this program. At first glimpse of a possible research topic, I thought I might study sea otter mortality in Monterey Bay. While settling into graduate classes during the first few months however, a phone call with my sister - an environmental educator - reminded me that marine mammal health and survivorship were increasingly being impacted by plastic pollution. She encouraged me to look into research opportunities. Out of that conversation formed my thesis project: investigating the types and quantities of marine debris stranded on beaches of Monterey Bay.
Another inspiration was Hannah Nevins, a sea bird researcher, who joined my graduate committee. Hannah was a strong guide who tenaciously supported me. Through her understanding of the pathways marine litter impacts seabird mortality and conservation, helped me craft my plastic pollution research proposal. Dr. Marc Los Huertos and Dr. Corey Garza were also my committee members representing CSUMB, and their expert guidance about best practices in field methods and statistical tests was invaluable. My confidence grew and I was relieved to know I had champions in my corner and yet would not hold my hand too tightly, allowing me to teach myself and explore, becoming an expert on the issue of marine debris and specifically on beach litter collection and analysis.
Image: Two of 40 citizen scientists documenting beach litter monthly at Marina State Beach, CA, USA. Photo credit Carolyn Rosevelt
Facing the logistics and length of my project, it was clear that I would need help to collect information about the presence of beach litter in the Monterey Bay region. To assist monthly data collection in the field across 12 beaches simultaneously, I recruited and trained over 40 volunteers or citizen scientists. I found this task overwhelming at first. How was I going to get enough community members to assist the project? What would the training look like and would it be effective? Afterall, I had read and re-read numerous papers describing the scientific methods used in beach litter assessment. I felt more and more confident that I could reproduce reliable results based on previous beach survey methods. This growing confidence was another step in my pull to become a marine scientist, yet another hurdle was to bring in non-scientists and teach them the biggest lesson of them all, reproducibility.
I created marketing materials advertising my research and a call for action from community members living in the Monterey Bay area from Santa Cruz to Carmel by the Sea. Shortly after the call went out, a dozen volunteers packed the small conference room in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary office. These volunteer hopefuls were all smiles and eager to learn how they could help marine conservation through researching plastic pollution. After welcoming the crowd, I took my time defining the importance of scientific reproducibility and how each person would be learning how to collect and record beach litter following these repeatable survey methods. I further explained that as citizen scientists we need to be confident that the data we collect can stand up on their own and be examined and compared to by other scientists. Relying on reproducible information not only was good science or best practice, but also it was expected, even demanded as a requirement to earn my degree and title as a marine scientist. I had a lot riding on my ability to teach and inspire the public to appreciate and respect following research protocols. After the presentation we walked together across the street to Breakers Beach, to demonstrate and practice our beach survey methods. I was putting together a team and it felt so exciting and validating. Several more trainings occurred later as more volunteers were interested. This is what it looked like to pursue my dream.
Image: Various sizes and types of plastic fragments documented during Monterey Bay beach surveys in 2009-2010. Photo credit Carolyn Rosevelt
I began to perform statistical analysis with the data to describe the likely patterns in quantities and types of beach litter over time as the monthly beach surveys continued. New phrases like transect, wrack line, plastic fragment, quadrat, and resin pellet filled my daily experience. I continued to participate in and schedule surveys each month. Five months into my project, Mitch, an undergraduate intern joined me. His dedication to collect, classify, and perform data entry tasks was key in the success of my thesis. While he sorted through beach litter samples containing hundreds of tiny plastic fragments, I honed my analytical approach and began writing up the results. I started to give scientific presentations on my research at conferences from San Francisco to San Diego and even Hawaii.
The big day had arrived, my Master’s defense, a 45-minute talk I would give in front of my peers, professors, and community partners. It was standing room only, the classroom was packed with at least twice the capacity, it was getting hotter by the minute. I was so nervous I almost forgot my password to get onto the computer to open my PowerPoint to even start my defense. When the talk was over relief swept over me and joy filled the overcrowded room. Whew, it was now time to celebrate.
As the months rolled by, I wrote and published a condensed version of my thesis post-graduation, a process that directly tapped into the discipline, focus, and patience I had honed in school. As of today, my research has been cited by over 100 international authors from studies looking at marine life health, to enumerating microplastics on remote beaches, to evaluating the use of citizen science. Completing my Master’s was an intellectual and emotional challenge, nearly every day, yet I did not give up, I succeeded in far more ways than imagined. And the adventure is still unfurling.
- Get engaged in conversations: volunteer and find certificate or degree programs in your field of interest.
- Learn how to effectively network into an opportunity (this takes practice and patience) Never stop networking ever.
- Find your joy and celebrate and grow it. Relationship making and the deep knowledge gained through engaging with practices and theories in marine conservation ecology propelled me through graduate school.