A series spotlighting OST's position at an evolving science-policy interface

By Emma Stone

Tell us about your journey to a career at the nexus of ocean & coastal science and policy - what was an unexpected turn/moment?

I would say the unifying thread between all of my career decisions has been communication and teaching, starting when I was in high school. I was in a zoology and botany class and we got to go on a multi-day trip to Catalina Island for a marine biology educational program, and I thought it was the most amazing place ever. I loved that it combined science learning with application, and it made everything an adventure that got people out of their comfort zones. It was the perfect experience to inspire ocean stewardship, and it really made me want to go into ocean sciences.

For a while I was a camp counselor, being outdoors and working with students and kids, and once I got to college I wanted to apply that to the marine education space. I ended up working at an outreach aquarium on campus, working in hands-on science communication for a wide array of audiences. After my degree I actually went back to that same camp on Catalina that I went to in high school, this time as a marine science instructor. I loved getting to do marine science and outdoor education as my full time job. When it was time for me to find a more permanent career track, I thought about how I could leverage my teaching and communication skills into a different type of ocean conservation -related work. I did some research and arrived at this policy space – everyone had been talking about the gap between scientists and policy-makers, and how we need to work at that nexus in order to make sound policy decisions. That sounded like a niche I could contribute to and after some additional digging I decided that pursuing a graduate degree would help prepare me for a career in ocean policy.

I went with the Environmental Policy and Management program at UC Davis for my Masters, where I got to do some work with the SeaDoc Society, looking at how the science they’ve produced has been used to inform policy and decision making. It made me realize that there’s all these things we can do throughout the research process to increase the likelihood of scientific results being used for policy, and to me that’s where science has the biggest value. Science isn’t necessarily useful, but when you can translate it into something actionable and actually effect change with it, that’s where the power really is.

It sounds like both Catalina and the SeaDoc society were pretty formative in your career. Is there a moment that stands out?

In terms of something that I see as a big career impact, I think it was actually at my previous job before joining OST. I was working at a conservation organization and was given the opportunity to draft a comment letter about the 30 by 30 efforts in California – but it wasn’t something I knew much about. It was a really big task and almost totally new to me. But my boss had the confidence in me and gave me that opportunity to go for it, and it allowed me to step into a place of growth. It taught me the power of not knowing and trying to do something anyway. And that empowered me to be much more confident in my problem-solving capabilities, which has been so helpful here at OST. We work on such a diverse array of issues that we can’t be experts in everything. You just have to know how to bring yourself up to speed and navigate new topics, new partners, new projects – without a lot of prep time. That was incredibly transformative from a professional development standpoint and has allowed me to feel like I can navigate the work we do.

Would you say the broad purview and the ability to keep learning and expanding your portfolio are some of the rewards of working here?

I would say the most rewarding part of working at OST is the conversations we get to have with such a wide variety of people. We don’t just talk to academics, we don’t just talk to state agencies, we don’t just talk to local governments, or stakeholders. We’re able to hear from all of these different perspectives, and we’re able to facilitate connection between all of them. Our work exemplifies the beauty of collaboration, and how once you get different perspectives in a room, you come up with unique ideas or shared understandings that didn’t previously exist, or creative solutions that require all of these different experiences and levels of expertise.
The flip side is, it is challenging. All of the moving pieces that go into this boundary-spanning work can be tricky to juggle. When you launch a new project there are infinite tasks and subtasks that go into convening a group of people and getting a policy document on paper. Keeping track of everything can be challenging. But it is worth it for those rewarding moments when you see the product of a working group, or you can be part of a conversation on a new approach to a policy issue.

Let’s narrow in on one of your main projects. How do you think the current SLR guidance update is reflective of OST’s overall vision and mission?

I think SLR fits really well into our role as a science-based boundary organization. We’re convening a group of experts to update the state’s sea-level rise guidance with the most up-to-date scientific projections for what and how sea levels are predicted to rise and change in the next 100+ years. This project’s existence is an acknowledgement that science is constantly being improved. Our methodology for forecasting how sea levels will change is getting better and better, so every five years the Ocean Protection Council has to update their guidance based on the newest advancements in the field. So that fact alone really ties into the precedence OST has set for applying science to policy, right? We operate in this space, and even the structure of the project is (from my understanding) very classically OST. It’s very collaborative, with our scientists updating the numbers and practitioners who are developing the application guide for end users. It’s going to help people answer common questions, like:, we’ve got these new SLR scenarios so what do we do with them? How do we know which ones to use, or incorporate other scientific outputs that are included with the document?

This effort is a big undertaking that includes a broad definition of boundary spanning. So many different groups are contributing to this process in so many ways to make sure we’re presenting the latest science in an actionable and understandable way. And this is where OST shines – we are so good at navigating this space and making sure we’re communicating what needs to be communicated to the relevant people and in the best way. And it’s such a long-standing issue area for us; I think it’s been an incredible first project to be on, because we have so much institutional knowledge about the history of sea level rise planning in the state. That’s allowed us to create a process which is as inclusive as possible, and helped us figure out how we’re communicating in the best way to all the relevant players.

Sea-level rise, as a topic, is so interesting. I started working on it at my previous job. It impacts everyone, not just people who live on the coast – it impacts people who live inland and rely on coastal infrastructure for their water or sewage systems. There are a ton of equity implications that come with it as well – who gets support for adaptation, or how will beach access be impacted? I just think this issue is so far-reaching that I feel very thankful to be able to work on it and get to know some of the players who have been leading our state’s response to sea-level rise. I feel honored and humbled to get to work with some of the leaders in thought and policy implementation in this sector.

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