The Future of Marine Stewardship and Management: Young Scientists Pioneer in Collaborative Research
By Nina Brener
The stewardship of our spectacular ocean is informed by brilliant scientists, researchers, and budding scholars. NOAA’s Dr. Nancy Foster scholars represent a new generation that works to find solutions to the complex obstacles faced in marine management. Marine research equips policy planners with the information they need to make informed decisions to protect our nation’s most treasured wildlife, maritime heritage, seascapes, and cultural resources.
The Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program
NOAA’s Dr. Nancy Foster program provides graduate students in oceanography, marine biology, maritime archaeology, and coastal and ocean resource management with financial support and tools for success. The program strives to make space for women and minorities to participate in scientific disciplines—coinciding with NOAA’s mission to diversify approaches to marine management. Equity and inclusion are core values of the program, opening doors for brilliant minds who yearn to learn and study about our one global ocean. In addition to supporting the academic research of the scholars accepted into the program, participants are also given unique opportunities to collaborate with partners of National Marine Sanctuaries and other NOAA line offices on projects outside of their primary research area. Program collaborations can take place at any of the sanctuary sites and focus on education, policy, or research. Anna Robuck and Samara Haver are two emerging scientists and Nancy Foster scholar alumni, reflecting on the value of the program and how it has changed the trajectory of their careers.
Samara Haver is a faculty research associate at Oregon State University, studying ocean soundscapes. By listening to what the naked eye cannot see, Haver studies sound pollution by gathering data revealing what oceanic species could be listening to. Marine soundscape research is a new field, and by spearheading these studies Haver is a pioneer in a new research strategy that can aid in species recovery.
The collaboration is built to add value and provide support in the scholars’ career journey. “I was excited to have many opportunities to learn about how federal marine protected areas were managed, and of course to contribute my research findings towards conservation,” says Haver. “In addition to research, I wanted to learn about the steps between scientific study results and management actions. I spent almost seven weeks on site at the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland in the policy and planning division. I learned how research in national marine sanctuaries is applied to management strategies, and how I could help communicate results from my research to facilitate conservation action. I concluded my program collaboration feeling energized that the research I conducted as a Foster Scholar would be impactful for national marine sanctuaries and resource conservation. In addition to the fantastic experience I had working within the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, I was also thrilled to be able to connect with staff and administrators in other NOAA line offices and maintain participation in many of these working groups after the program collaboration.I continued my involvement through a postdoc appointment to my current position as a research associate.”
Although Haver hasn’t completed a research study as part of the collaboration, she is currently a researcher in the Cooperative Institute for Marine Ecosystem and Resources Studies at Oregon State University. “I work closely with federal researchers (e.g., NOAA Office of Atmospheric Research, National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, and the National Park Service) on projects related to passive acoustic soundscape monitoring. My current research includes using passive acoustic data to monitor vessel noise, evaluate cetacean community composition, and compare acoustic habitat conditions for whales within and nearby marine protected areas.”
Currently a principal investigator at the U.S. EPA; Anna Robuck’s doctoral research at the University of Rhode Island measured microplastics and contaminants in seabirds found in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Through analysis of their tissues, Robuck was able to pinpoint both lingering and emerging contaminants in the ecosystem and bridge the gap between data and management plans to address it.
Robuck was fortunate to participate in multiple collaborations that added value and supported her research and career journey, “I was lucky enough to engage in two different collaborations—one (pre-COVID) where I served as chief scientist on a water quality research cruise in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the other where I worked remotely investigating the impacts and management of plastic pollution in marine protected areas, working with the Marine Protected Areas Center. These were different opportunities, but both helped me develop team communication skills, organizational practices, and helped me step outside my “student” mindset , learning to integrate science into decision-making and management. The collaboration with the Marine Protected Areas Center was eye-opening to me because it helped me understand the sensitivities of working with diverse stakeholders to tackle a problem,” Robuck says.
The major findings from this project can alert policy makers to pollutants that could be harming the ecosystem, “The water quality research cruise resulted in a pilot dataset documenting the presence of several types of emerging contaminants in Massachusetts Bay. This was the first dataset of its kind, and has since served to inform discussions about water quality monitoring in the region such as within the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the Outfall Monitoring Science Advisory Panel, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System office. Working with the Marine Protected Areas Center, I found plastic pollution impacts in marine protected areas around the globe, with variable management and monitoring strategies across different sites. The collaboration resulted in a summary presentation, where I got to share the project results with over 300 people,” Robuck reflects.
Now, Robuck works as a chemistry principal investigator within the U.S. EPA Office of Research and Development. She and her team work to better characterize per- and polyfluorinated substances and a range of other emerging contaminants in marine and aquatic food webs.
The Dr. Nancy Foster scholarship program transforms passion into action, and broadens experience past graduate school research projects. The unique collaboration opportunities with staff in other NOAA agency offices and partners offer a well-rounded, hands-on experience that helps kickstart the careers of these young scientists who are interested in applying science to resource management decisions.
Nina Brener is a communications intern with NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries