Southeast Region Branch Chief, Assessment and Restoration Division, Office of Response and Restoration
My job is to keep the Assessment and Restoration Division’s Southeast Branch, which has offices spread from North Carolina through Texas, cranking out good scientific assessments. I do things like manage our budget and resources and make sure we are working in a way that is consistent with the rest of our national program. In short, I try to support the branch and keep everyone focused on doing what they are good at, which is conducting/analyzing the science behind natural resource damage assessments.
I work with teams of scientists, lawyers, and economists to conduct environmental assessments after oil or chemical spills or at contaminated waste sites where there has been pollution released in a coastal/marine environment. We figure out the extent of natural resource injuries – how big the area of impact is, what resources have been affected, and how long the resource injuries are likely to persist. We then determine what kind of restoration projects can be implemented to compensate the public for lost resources.
I really enjoy what my job is all about—getting restoration projects going that benefit coastal and marine resources and ultimately the public. It is a very applied-science kind of job, and I feel good about making a difference and seeing a site cleaned up or a big restoration project started or completed. I love that every case we work is different. There are different scientific questions that arise from working in different coastal habitats, affected by different kinds of contaminants, with different resources affected. I enjoy the challenges of oil spill response, where you have to be on-scene sometimes within hours in order to collect the data you will need later to support your claim. You have to think on your feet, often times work with little or no infrastructure, and come up with solutions to all of the questions and problems that arise. And of course, the field work is the best part of the job. I’ve slogged through mud in Honduras to collect fiddler crabs, been dropped off by helicopter on various remote locations in the Aleutian Islands, and spent plenty of times on skiffs and in airboats in the marshes and along the beaches of our Gulf states. The muddier the better!
Accepting that these cases can take years to resolve, even with all the great science that is out there, and that therefore, it takes a long time to get the restoration projects implemented.
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology from Ohio State University (go BUCKS!) and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Marine Science from the University of South Carolina.
My interest in oceans and coasts really began in college. I was a microbiology major, with an interest in aquatic microbiology. My education and career just followed along that track, moving from freshwater research into marine research. I wanted to do applied science, so contaminant work just made sense. And of course, who wouldn’t want to work in super-soft, muddy sediments that are often contaminated with agricultural and industrial chemicals?
I hooked up with a great graduate advisor who really inspired me further, and the rest just fell into place – from my research at the University of South Carolina then to NOAA. The real key was having some very excellent mentors along the way both with my undergraduate and graduate programs. They helped me shape my interests into a career.
I started at NOAA as a Sea Grant fellow, with a tentative plan to go back into academia to teach and do research. But once I started at NOAA, I found that I really enjoyed the diversity of the work I did, the bright and motivated people I worked with, and the ability to do some applied science and serve the public. As a result, I never left.
Find an area of ocean science that you are passionate about and get involved with it early on. There are so many opportunities to volunteer, work part time, do internships that will get you valuable experience and help you really figure out your interests and your strengths. These hands-on opportunities will not only give you valuable experience that is desirable to potential employers, but will also give you professional connections and hook you into a group of like-minded people – giving you a real network. I’m always surprised at what a ‘small world’ our scientific community really is.
Another suggestion is to find mentors, people that are doing work that you find interesting and talk to them, volunteer with them, work for them. Find out how they got into the field and learn from their successes (and failures!)
When I came into this job, I thought that with enough science you could answer any question definitively and with precision. But after working in this program and trying to make quantitative determinations about things like injuries to natural resources and other questions upon which outcomes can result in thousands to millions of dollars in costs, I’ve learned that finding a definite answer is a real challenge. There always seem to be gray areas, ranges of reasonable technical answers upon which we struggle to reach consensus. It is important to be able to see your science problems with an open mind and to recognize the uncertainty associated with science.