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Jessica Conway, Response Specialist

Jessica Conway

Jessica Conway, Response Specialist.

Jessica is a response specialist with the Marine Debris Program (MDP), which is in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). MDP is the federal government’s lead for addressing marine debris, which is a threat to our ocean, Great Lakes, and waterways because of its effects on navigation safety, the economy, and human health. OR&R responds to oil spills, chemical accidents, and other emergencies, including hurricanes, in coastal areas. It also provides scientific support to the U.S. Coast Guard for spills in coastal waters.

What are your basic job duties?

I support the Marine Debris Program’s emergency response mission. Mainly, I lead in the development of response preparedness resources, including marine debris emergency response guides. This is a large collaborative project that helps improve the preparedness for and response to disasters that generate marine debris in coastal states and territories. I also plan and conduct response-related training and exercises for external stakeholders and for NOAA. Building relationships with response stakeholders at the federal, state, and local levels is an important part of my job.

How did you get to where you are now in your career?

I went to school to study marine biology; my interest was in marine mammals. After graduate school, where I studied the population dynamics of bottlenose dolphins in South Carolina, I got a job with the South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network, administered through NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS). In that role, I responded to whale and dolphin strandings in South Carolina, and I performed necropsies to determine the cause of death. Many of the stranded animals I responded to had suffered because of their interactions with humans, and I saw firsthand the devastating effects of marine debris. Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals can become entangled in fishing gear or other types of debris, like plastic packaging material. They also ingest floating debris like food wrappers and plastic bags. My office at NCCOS worked closely with the Marine Debris Program on a project to better understand marine debris impacts on marine mammals, and that connection led me to join the program as a response specialist in 2015.

When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career?

I grew up along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and visited the Eastern Shore frequently. From an early age, I felt drawn to the ocean — as many of us lucky enough to live near it often do. I knew that jobs in marine biology were competitive and not always as adventurous or glamorous as they seem to be on television. Still, I knew I wanted my career to contribute to the larger effort to protect the oceans and to add to the pool of knowledge through science.

Who has influenced you or encouraged you?

My stepmom played a large part in fostering the sense of independence and passion I needed to pursue the career I ultimately chose. Some of my fondest childhood memories are walking the beaches of North Carolina with her collecting shells, admiring the wildlife, and appreciating the beauty of the ecosystem. Growing up, she taught me a lot about the water and its importance. More importantly, she was my main support system when I decided to leave Maryland and pursue a degree; something no one else in my family had done before. Her encouragement helped me become successful in realizing that dream, and I am very grateful.

What about your work has felt especially exciting or rewarding?

The most rewarding part of my job is connecting the work I do back to the partners it helps. For example, the Marine Debris Program has received feedback that our emergency response guides are used by responders during hurricanes, and that our information helps them respond more effectively. It makes me feel grateful to have a job that has a positive impact. The most exciting days I have are when I can bring multiple partners together, face to face, to brainstorm ideas and foster positive relationships. That sense of community and connection really contributes to an efficient and successful response.

What NOAA project have you enjoyed working on the most?

As an extrovert who loves public speaking, two of my favorite skills to exercise are planning and facilitation. I receive a ton of positive energy from being in a room full of people — especially people who are eager to collaborate and contribute to a larger mission. Any time I can lead or facilitate a workshop, training, or exercise, I feel really accomplished. I especially like developing our state and territory-specific guides. To make the guides, we hold response-related workshops and exercises where participants provide feedback, share challenges, verify response processes, and connect with each other — all important steps toward a more successful response.

What would you recommend to those who want to begin a career in your field?

Sharpen your communication skills! They will take you far in any job, but they are especially important in the environmental science/response fields because you will encounter people with varying backgrounds, perspectives, and disciplines, and you have to be able to connect and relate to them. Attend relevant webinars or meetings to learn more, and meet people who are in the position you want. Make as many connections with people currently in the field you want to enter as you can.

  • Name: Jessica Conway
  • Location: Charleston, South Carolina
  • Education: B.S. in Marine Science; M.S. in Coastal Marine and Wetland Studies
  • National Ocean Service Program Office: Office of Response and Restoration, Marine Debris Program

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Author: NOAA

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