For Women’s History Month, we reached out to Karen Morgan, retired coastal geologist from the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. Karen provided a reflection on the progression of coastal research and increase in women scientists during her 29-year career at USGS.
Reflection on a 29-year career at USGS from Karen Morgan
This article is part of the January-March 2022 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.
How long did you work at the USGS and how did you start?
I worked at the USGS just short of 29 years, starting in October of 1990. The USGS had moved into the Studebaker Building about a year earlier and were beginning the process of filling out their staff. I worked for Richard Stumpf (now with NOAA) and Guy Gelfenbaum (former Center Director at the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center). I helped monitor water quality in Mobile Bay, Alabama. I moved from there doing a lot of the graphics work at the center, before finally working for Abby Sallenger in the hurricanes group where I spent most of my career.
What is the most significant development or discovery you witnessed (whether you participated directly or not) during your tenure?
I think the development of new Photogrammetry software (Agisoft Metashape, for example) to study the changes in coastal geomorphology. The USGS was only just beginning to explore the vast capabilities of this new method of analysis. It could be used to model large (or small) areas and more completely understand the changes that were occurring. That combined with machine learning would allow researchers to process vast quantities of data (old and new) that were previously too labor intensive to analyze.
What have been some of the most profound changes at the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center?
I will say that the St. Pete office started as a small group of coastal scientists (in only the Studebaker Building) and has grown to be a major and respectable research center both in the St. Pete oceanographic community, as well as the national oceanographic community.
What methodologies or technologies have evolved the most over this time?
The ability to use photography to model surfaces. Add to that: the use of drone technology to capture that photography meant that scientists could gather data more quickly, more safely, and with less cost. These developments have made it much easier for scientists to gather the data they need to better understand coastal (and many other) environments. In the hurricanes group, we started photographing the impacts of hurricanes on our coastlines in 1996. Those surveys were conducted along the shore and helped many coastal managers, emergency managers, and individual homeowners assess the damage along the shore after a storm. By the time I retired, we were using photogrammetric methods to quantify the amount of damage in specific locations, and then return over time to quantify the recovery.
What are some of the aspects of the Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program (CMHRP) that make it unique compared to other federal programs?
In the hurricanes group, as with perhaps the volcano and earthquake programs, we were able to help people understand the immediate world around them. In geology, you often study the past, millions of years ago. The CMHRP focused on the geologic processes of the present and helped bring that to the public in an understandable and relatable form.
What do you hope the Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program can accomplish in the years to come?
I hope it will continue its mission to bring understanding of our environment to the public, especially when we are seeing significant changes in our environment. The CMHRP is in the unique position of having historical records that can be used to illuminate the changes that we see occurring today, from sea level rise and coastal erosion to ocean acidification and many others. It’s very important to communicate the changes we see in an understandable form. Without the support of the public, we can’t hope to continue our mission.
What was your favorite/most rewarding part about working at USGS?
I think the most rewarding for me was being able to help people understand the impact of severe storms. We flew over and collected aerial imagery along areas of coast that were most severely impacted by storms. One of the most significant storms we flew was Hurricane Katrina, and we posted those pictures online within two days. The amount of traffic to our website was incredible as people learned of our survey and were able to get online and see the impact of the storm on their property long before they were allowed back to their homes. We continued to post post-storm photography over the next 15 years including Hurricanes Ike, Sandy, and Michael, to name a few. Being part of something that helped people understand the storms and learn about the direct impact to them was very rewarding.
What were some of the most fun memories you have (or projects you worked on) from being a part of the Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program family?
I’m a bit of a space geek. Being able to work on projects related to the Kennedy Space Center was amazing. We deployed cameras on the KSC property and were able to get into areas on KSC we normally wouldn’t have been able to reach. While we were there, Shuttle Discovery was sitting on the launch pad, and while we couldn’t get close, she was amazing to see. We also helped KSC with a project to save sea turtle hatchings from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (bringing them from the affected area to KSC for rehabilitation). Being part of the project (dune erosion monitoring) that let me be there at that time is one of my best memories.
What were some of the biggest shifts (socially or professionally) you observed within the Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program since starting at USGS?
More and more women scientists joining the program, and the advancement of those women into positions of leadership (Dr. Hilary Stockdon). When I started the USGS there was only one female researcher (and no PhDs) in St. Pete. As the Center grew, more and more women were hired. Many of those grew and advanced to be the heart of the program.
What has the role of women been in scientific activities at the Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program and where do you see this going in the future
CMHRP is already on the right path, but more work needs to be done. The CMHRP continues to grow and develop, and more opportunities are opening up. As that happens, more scientists are accepting of women as equal colleagues. At USGS, and specifically in CMHRP, women need to continue to mentor their colleagues--men and women both--to continue to see each other as equals in research. Sadly, bias still exists today. We all need to work to eliminate that as much as we can. The future lies in us all.
“In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is a story of the earth.” –Rachel Carson
Many of Karen's photos can be found in the Oblique Aerial Photography Viewer.