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Small AND Mighty: Getting the Right Messages to the Right Ears

Melissa McCutcheon reflects on her internship with Ocean Conservancy’s Ocean Acidification program

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© Digital Vision

Melissa McCutcheon is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Coastal and Marine System Science program at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. She has always felt a special connection with the ocean and has spent more than eight years studying marine science on the Virginia and Texas coasts.

I just did something completely out of my comfort zone. I’m nearly done earning my doctorate at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, where I’ve been happily working on ocean acidification research in the coastal zone for more than four years. Yet I put that work on hold for six months to intern at Ocean Conservancy and work on ocean acidification policy in Washington, DC.

Prior to interning here, I honestly had no idea the role environmental advocacy groups play in the translation of scientific knowledge to environmentally smart policy. Scientists are primarily trained to become researchers or academics. There have been very few opportunities throughout my graduate schooling to see first-hand how other sectors function. As a marine scientist, I have always hoped that my contributions to science would make a difference in how humans regard and interact with their environment. But like most scientists, I was not actively involved in making sure that the right people see or hear the science to make a positive change.

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© Melissa McCutcheon
Once I learned about the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) new Non-Academic Research Internship for Graduate Students (INTERN), I had to apply. As the first, and currently only, graduate student to complete this internship through NSF’s Chemical Oceanography Program, I now feel compelled to share the amazing experience that I had and encourage other graduate students to take advantage of this internship.

The INTERN award is unique in that the graduate student is responsible for contacting potential mentors at prospective host-organizations; as long as someone agrees to serve as a mentor, the internship can be with any non-academic organization. It doesn’t have to be ocean-focused, or tightly tied to students’ existing research. When I was considering potential hosts to contact, Ocean Conservancy seemed like a clear fit for me for a few reasons. First, they have an Ocean Acidification Program, and coastal acidification (and its drivers and variability over time and space) has been the focus of my dissertation research. Second, I have always been interested in the application of science in environmental policy. And finally, Ocean Conservancy has several scientists in leadership roles, showing how research success and scientific influence can come together outside of the traditional academic career path.

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© Melissa McCutcheon
During my time at Ocean Conservancy, I have used the skills that I have gained through my scientific training to synthesize information and create products that will be used in direct communications with decision-makers as they consider how to confront the growing threat of ocean acidification. While Ocean Conservancy primarily engages in federal (and some international) policy, I was able to expand the organization’s understanding of state-level action. I was surprised to see how many states, including land-locked states, have mentioned ocean acidification in state policies. Hopefully, this synthesis of state attention to ocean acidification will help federal action and solutions proceed. While I had never really considered the human dimension of the science-policy connection, the most interesting thing that I have learned is how to strategize about who, when, and how to appeal to people about ocean issues in relation to policy. No matter where my next career stage takes me, I think that this will continue to influence the way that I think about effective science communication to any audience.

As I return to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi to finish off my degree, I am so grateful to NSF and Ocean Conservancy for providing this opportunity. This experience showed me that relatively small organizations like Ocean Conservancy can make a huge impact. I am proud of the work that they are doing to promote healthy oceans, and I am proud that I got to contribute in small part to that effort.

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