Women across the USGS are making history every day. Meet some of our women staff and scientists across the Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program and how they are paving the way towards a brighter future.
Women making history in coastal and marine science
Kara Doran is an Oceanographer who leads the storm response task of the Coastal Change Hazards (CCH) Technical Capabilities and Applications project for the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. Her work focuses on forecasting storm impacts to coastlines, in support of hazards research. Kara says, “None of this would be possible without my team!” Her team works to extract shoreline features from these datasets, create runup delineations from beach cameras, and MUCH more. Kara is also the Center’s liaison to the USGS storm team, and has been the “face” for USGS hurricane impact research through her participation in numerous media interviews –especially during hurricane season!
Working in natural hazards and knowing that her data and models get used by the people who need it is the most rewarding part of Kara’s job – “that part is just SO cool,” she says. She recalls one particularly rewarding moment when she became aware that the North Carolina Department of Transportation was using her data and models on a regular basis for planning! Knowing that her data can be used directly to help protect peoples’ lives and property is one of the main reasons she does what she does. Kara’s work has resulted in the construction of the Coastal Change Hazards Portal and allowed people to directly interact with the data. “Marine science is inherently interdisciplinary, which allows us to work with so many different people with different perspectives. I love that what I do allows me to work with other centers and agencies to get the job done.”
Meagan Eagle is a Research Scientist in the Environmental Geochemistry group at the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center. Her research on coastal ecosystems, such as estuaries and wetlands, is used to inform management and address coastal hazards as well as the role coastal ecosystems play in the climate system. “Climate change is altering our environment in important ways. I work on coastal wetlands, where sea-level rise is accelerating, leading to important decisions about sustainable and resilient infrastructure and ecosystems. Policy evolution around these topics needs to be supported by great science and I find it really rewarding to engage with the public, land managers, and the government on how coastal ecosystems engage with the global climate system,” she says.
She combines historical ecosystem information gleaned from analysis of wetland peat, with modern environmental drivers to constrain future ecosystem responses, including rates and drivers of coastal wetland carbon storage across a range of natural and human-managed wetland settings. Dr. Eagle works with managers and policy makers at local, state, and federal levels to provide actionable science. “One of my science goals is for my research to be useful and relevant to the public. This is done best when our workforce looks like the people we serve. As a woman in science, it is my responsibility to make sure there is room for all,” she says.
Dr. Eagle was a Principal Investigator in the Bringing Wetlands to Market project studying the carbon storage consequences of the planned Herring River restoration (within Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts) as well as other projects focused on the intersection of management practices, wetland resilience, and carbon stock fate. She has a B.S. and M.S. in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Chemical Oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program.
One of the best parts of Meagan’s job is working with students and interns who are just starting their environmental careers. “Since I've found a career that I love as a federal scientist, conducting impactful research, I want to provide as many opportunities as possible for others to learn about these ecosystems, gain field skills, and find their own place.”
Li is a Research Oceanographer at the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. She studies coastal change impacts on the Pacific coast, from California to Alaska. Much of her research involves identifying drivers of coastal change and their impacts to coastal ecosystems, communities, and infrastructure. Specializing in modeling of wind-wave patterns and coastal processes such as nearshore hydrodynamics and coastal change, Li is the lead Principal Investigator for Coastal Change Impacts to Arctic Coasts.
“It’s very exciting to be part of an interdisciplinary team studying the rapidly changing Arctic coast of Alaska,” said Li. “The work is fascinating, both for the location and for the impact and importance of the information that we’re able to obtain and deliver to those living there.”
“As a child of the 1970’s, undoubtedly influenced by human practices at the time that led to acid rain, contaminated water supplies, estuarine nutrient overloading, and an emerging environmental movement, I have always had a passion to understand and reduce the negative impacts that humans impart on the environment,” said Li. “This passion for the environment, coupled with the fact that population concentrations tend to border coastal regions and that I grew up near the coast and always wanted to remain near the coast, led me to pursue research within the coastal region – to understand the basic and complex processes and interactions with human activities.”
Dr. Donya Frank-Gilchrist is a Research Oceanographer with the Coastal Change Hazards group. She and her team investigate coastal hydrodynamics and sediment transport at small scales (to study how waves and currents mobilize sand grains and objects on the seafloor) and up to large scale (how storms and sea level rise affect barrier islands). Donya aspires to make tools and resources more accessible to stakeholders, especially in hazard-prone areas like Puerto Rico. She says, “I love applying science to problems in society.” Donya is one of the lead investigators on a project working to compile and share USGS information and resources available related to hazards in Puerto Rico with local stakeholders (e.g., federal agencies, academics, public/communities, coastal practitioners). This effort will help stakeholders better prepare for and mitigate the impacts of natural hazards.
Amy Gartman, Kira Mizell, Denise Payan (Global Marine Mineral Resources Group)
The Global Marine Mineral Resources Project studies deep ocean minerals within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone and throughout the Earth’s oceans.
As project lead, PCMSC Research Oceanographer Amy Gartman has improved the understanding of marine mineral resources in a time when critical minerals are a very active political and scientific topic, acting as the primary science contact on this research topic for the entire USGS and federal government. “Our team’s job is to understand these minerals globally and advise the U.S. on the most urgent regions of interest, as well as answer scientific questions related to the possible future extraction of these potential resources,” Amy said. “Scientifically, there is an enormous amount left to do just to get to a basic understanding of deep-sea minerals.”
Amy acts as the scientific advisor the U.S. State Department delegation to the International Seabed Authority, which governs marine mineral resources in international waters.
The team also includes Kira Mizell, PCMSC Research Oceanographer and Denise Payan, PCMSC Physical Scientist.
“I love how the deposits that I study—the different mineral occurrences found on the seafloor—all have a story to tell,” said Kira. “Ferromanganese crusts in particular are very widespread throughout the global ocean, which covers most of our planet. Every sample we pull up tells us a different story—about ocean chemistry, about how elements are dissolved in seawater and accumulated over millions of years. Each sample is an important part of our oceans’ history, our Earth’s history.”
Denise assists with processing marine mineral samples and generating physical and geochemical data for the team. “Working with an experimental research team in such a new, growing field has given me the opportunity to work and learn alongside scientists at the marine mineral forefront– it’s really an exclusive look into the stories these minerals can tell us,” said Denise.
Emily has been a Geologist at the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center since 2003 and has worked on a wide variety of projects throughout her career. Her early career was spent on research cruises that included shipboard collection and processing of geophysical data. She has also been involved in the development of a software program used to measure shoreline change through time that is used by researchers around the world. Emily is part of a team that has compiled and continues to update a national-scale database of historical shoreline positions and change rates for ocean coastlines and she participated in the conception, creation, and usability testing of a web-based platform to visualize and access Coastal Change Hazards data for use by federal and state agencies, NGOs, municipalities, and private citizens.
More recently Emily has provided organizational, communication, and logistical support by facilitating creative and collaborative discussions between scientific research projects, technical scientists, data management, and information technology staff, to provide the structural support needed to transform the way we approach asking and answering scientific research questions. This effort is intended to consider who uses and needs the data, knowledge, and tools our research can provide as well as the best ways we can share this information.
When asked what it means to Emily to be a woman in the science field, she said, “Being a woman in the science field means exploring who I am at the junction of my different identities. I am a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a scientist. Together these parts influence the work I do and help me to advocate for ways to make scientific research more inclusive, diverse and accessible to all.”
Dr. Ilsa Kuffner is a Research Marine Biologist at the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. “I love that I have the honor of working with and among people that are just as passionate about their jobs as I am,” she says. Her job is focused on providing information about coral reefs, the threats they are experiencing, and strategies to help preserve and restore these ecosystems.
Ilsa works to provide answers to questions about how our Nation’s precious natural resources can best be managed. Having objectively collected data and information is key to making informed decisions, and some of the decisions are not easy ones. For example, her work addresses the potential risks and rewards of transplanting threatened coral species (like the elkhorn coral) across hundreds of miles of reef. Knowing when the risk of extinction outweighs the risks in taking action could be key to the persistence of coral species under threat from warming oceans and fast-spreading diseases.
“Like many ecosystems on land, coral reefs are an ecosystem in crisis—and they need our help. I study coral reefs to help provide knowledge humans need to make decisions on how best to manage and restore these critical natural resources. Coastal communities throughout the tropics are safer and more economically prosperous with healthy coral reefs than without them.” –Ilsa Kuffner
Nora is a Research Geologist at the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center who studies stratigraphic and tectonic characterization of ocean basins (both modern and ancient). She is currently studying the dispersal of offshore sediment to understand the relationships between submarine mass failure events and sediment supply/source when tectonic or climatic changes impart imbalance on the stability of continental shelves.
“I am fascinated by how little we know about the ocean and captivated by the infinite discoveries that continue to be made, given that such a relatively small proportion of the ocean has been explored. We can still learn so much about the past, present, and future of our ocean – whether related to climate, biology, or geological processes recorded on the ocean floor.” –Nora Nieminski
Jin-Si is a geographer with the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center. As a drone pilot and structure-from-motion specialist, she supports the Remote Sensing Coastal Change group and Aerial Imaging and Mapping group with GIS and surveying experience. When asked why she chose her career field, Jin-Si said, “The ‘real world’ application... Here in the realm of coastal science we have hurricanes and sea-level rise that we are monitoring and providing data for that gets used immediately or at least is incorporated into policy and best practices for coastal hazards as they affect public beaches, parks, and animals using the coast. I also love maps. Have always loved maps, and to get to make maps professionally is a dream come true.” The most rewarding part of her job is “being part of a group [Remote Sensing Coastal Change] that collects and provides data [elevation and imagery] to a bunch of other groups that use it in their analyses, it's so nice to be able to identify a need and be able to provide data for a specific place, and even rapidly if it's a need based on a natural hazard. Also just spending hours looking at beautiful beach imagery. So relaxing.”
Read Jin-Si's full interview: https://www.usgs.gov/news/researcher-spotlight-jin-si-over.
Dr. Meg Palmsten is a Research Oceanographer studying Coastal Change at the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. “I’m interested in doing fundamental research, just like you would at a university but then also thinking a lot about how to develop products.” Meg’s passion for research extends beyond just published papers – “to me that’s not where science should end. It has to be taken to the people.” She likes to produce results that can be directly applied to real scenarios.
Meg loves the challenges of studying coastal morphologic change. “I love water, the power of waves, and the way that sand moves - it’s a solid but it can also behave a little bit like a liquid.” This makes for an interesting challenge for Meg – which is one of the most exciting things about her job. “I’m always excited to learn something new every day. I think the scientific challenges are fun.” The two most rewarding aspects of her job are the science itself, and the opportunity to mentor other scientists and help them find their way along their career path.
“I was inspired to have a career in marine science & oceanography by reading about Eugenie Clark in my 5th grade reading book. I now have my dream job at the USGS!” Meg conducts research on Coastal Change Hazards to produce results that can be directly applied to real scenarios such as storm impacts. Meg’s advice to aspiring scientists: “Stick with math and science through middle school, high school, and college. There are so many job opportunities out there with a strong background in STEM.”
Dr. Nancy Prouty is a Research Oceanographer at the USGS Pacific Coastal & Marine Science Center. Nancy is the lead Principal Investigator (PI) studying groundwater and land-based pollution effects on coral reef ecosystems. In this role, Nancy designs and implements field experiments to assess these geochemical impacts. She is also the lead PI on the deep-sea coral paleo-ecology multi-agency project.
Nancy says the ocean, particularly the marine life, fascinates her "because it’s a world where I can only visit—I have to use special equipment or instruments to visit this world. And all marine life is specially adapted to live in this unique place-whether that’s the deep ocean absent of light, or the tidal pools of the nearshore environment."
Dr. Julie Richey is a Research Geologist who leads paleoclimate research for the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center Climate Research and Development project. Her work involves using sedimentary archives (marine sediments, corals, and lake sediments) to reconstruct climate variability in the past. She is focused on understanding how temperature and hydroclimate in the Gulf of Mexico-Caribbean region have changed on timescales of decades to centuries during the Holocene (the most recent 10,000 years). Her work helps improve our understanding of natural (i.e., pre-industrial) patterns of climate change, and how climate influences processes like ocean circulation and rainfall patterns over land. Julie appreciates having the privilege of doing work that contributes to our collective understanding of global climate change, an issue that not only she finds important, but that has broad-reaching societal implications. She is inspired by the smart and dedicated group of scientists that she gets to work with on a daily basis. One of the more challenging aspects is of her job is to find ways to communicate her science more broadly beyond the academic and research science community, and to make sure that stakeholders understand the importance of basic research to fully understanding the issues facing society and policymakers.
Rebecca is a Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center studying the potential for restoration of coastal ecosystems to contribute to climate change mitigation. Her research is improving our growing understanding of what drives emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and sequestration of carbon dioxide in salt marshes across a range of conditions. Results will guide landowners and managers on the blue carbon (carbon stored in ocean and coastal ecosystems) consequences of management decisions related to coastal resiliency and hazard reduction.
“Environmental changes, including land management, climate change, nutrient pollution, and invasive species, alter the ecological interactions that control coastal and terrestrial ecosystem function. My research aims to understand ecosystem response to such perturbations in order to predict the sustainability of ecosystem services, like carbon sequestration and protection from coastal hazards.” - Rebecca Sanders-DeMott
Dr. Kathryn Smith is a Research Ecologist at the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center and the Primary Investigator on the Estuary and Marsh Geology (EMrG) project. She studies spatial and temporal change in coastal marshes, particularly the impacts of storms and coastal hazards. This research is important because marshes worldwide “are a big unknown in the face of sea level.” It’s important to understand how changes in sea level and storms are going to affect marsh habitats over the long-term because they are important ecologically and economically. Marshes are also carbon storehouses and as they erode, the fate of that carbon is unknown – it can return to the marsh via deposition, but could also be released into the estuary, increasing carbon in the ocean.
Kathryn says her favorite part of her job is, “interacting with my early career colleagues and with students and seeing them learn, while they’re still exploring and trying to decide what they want to do. They’re very excited about it!” Kathryn finds the enthusiasm of her colleagues contagious. “It reminds us, even on some of the more difficult days of our daily jobs, the reasons why we chose science as a profession.”
Dr. Sara Zeigler is a Research Geographer in the USGS Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program. She studied many different animals and habitats including golden-headed lion tamarins in Brazil, red-cockaded woodpeckers in longleaf pine forests, sea turtles in Mexico, and tigers in Indonesia, before shifting to her current focus on piping plovers on barrier islands.
Sara started with the USGS as a Mendenhall Fellow in 2014, which blended into a position with USGS. Although she calls herself a “landscape ecologist” mainly focused on mapping, Sara said, “you have to know a lot about the animals within the ecosystems you’re studying to understand how changes might affect them – which is really fun!” In her position, Sara incorporates model outputs about land change to draw conclusions about how storms and sea level rise will affect ecosystems in the future.
Sara says, “I love that I get to learn something new every day.” Sara’s work as an ecologist in CMHRP means that she gets to work with people from a ton of different disciplines and specialties. “Collaborating with oceanographers and geologists gives my ecology work a depth and complexity that I’ve never had on any other project.” She’s inspired by the excitement of her colleagues when they see how their work can be applied to endangered species conservation.