Would WildHub consider this narrative a Lessons Learned Post?
Hi, I am one of the new volunteer Conservation Catalysts and I would love to get your vote, suggestions, and comments in this piece I wrote recently. Could this be turned into a lessons learned post that would meet the criteria Thriza has set forth for my team?
Thank you kindly.
“A Bit of Sisterly Advice: My Journey in Marine Conservation Science”
Written Nov. 2020 by Carolyn Rosevelt
One day in 2006 I got up the courage to really become a marine scientist. Previously, 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. In high school, I sought out extracurricular courses in marine science and volunteered at the Portland Zoo. I intelligently weaved in internships and upper division courses [outside of my major], convincing my counselors, “marine mammalogy” counted towards my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies. 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 I did decide to really become a marine scientist. I found my inner courage and slowly let go of fear. This ultimately meant leaving Seattle where I had lived for the past 5 years and moving back to the central coast of California where I had spent my college years. Back in California I joined the then “Coastal and Watershed Science and Policy” graduate program at CSU Monterey Bay. The newly minted program focused on creating a triple threat kind of scientist. A new relevant practitioner of science, able to become skilled applied researchers, policy analysts, or technology aficionados. I was eager to combine my marine mammal research studying whales, dolphins, seals, and sea otters with these new skills in technology, project implementation, policy and law, and applied research. My career passion pulled me again and again toward studying marine mammals and at first glimpse of this graduate program I thought I might study sea otter mortality in Monterey Bay. While settling into graduate classes during the first few months, a phone call with my sister - an environmental educator - had reminded me that marine mammal health and survivorship were increasingly being impacted by plastic pollution and 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.
In the early months of school I found Hannah Nevins, a sea bird researcher, who would be the third addition to my graduate committee. Hannah was a strong guide who tenaciously supported and helped me craft my plastic pollution research proposal. Dr. Marc Los Hertos and Dr. Corey Garza were my committee members representing CSUMB, and their expert guidance about best practices in field methods and statistical tests was invaluable. 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.
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 me? 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 slow growing confidence was the first step in my pull to become a marine scientist, yet now I needed to bring in non-scientists and teach them the biggest lesson of 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 a citizen scientist we need to be confident that the data we collect can stand up on its own and be examined and compared to by other scientists. Relying on reproducible information was not only good science or best practices, but 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.
I began to perform statistical analysis to describe the likely patterns in quantities and types of beach litter over time as the monthly beach surveys continued. New phrases like transect, wrackline, 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 Vernon, 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 giving scientific presentations at conferences from San Francisco to San Diego, and even out to Hawaii.
The big day had arrived, my masters defense, a 45 minute talk I would give in front of my peers, professors, and community partners. It was standing room only, the class room 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 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 masters 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.