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S.C. Sea Grant Consortium Offers Unique Opportunities for Graduate Students

May 28, 2017

By Susannah Sheldon, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium
Edited and compiled by Joey Holleman and Susan Ferris Hill, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium

Training graduate students to perform research and to translate that work to real world applications is a complex process. Recognizing the need for the balance of science and outreach in graduate education, the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium recently piloted the Coastal Research and Extension Study Group format. This model for research brings university scientists, graduate students and Sea Grant extension specialists together as a team.

The scientists provide research oversight, and the extension specialists serve as mentors on developing effective outreach products. The graduate students gain experience conducting independent research and translating the research into messages and products for non-scientific audiences. For example, a blueways-greenways Study Group project came up with base maps, brochures and an interactive blueways-greenways app providing guidance for communities interested in those amenities. During a 2015 site visit, National Sea Grant Site Review Team identified the Consortium’s Study Group format as a best management practice.

A blue crab being measured.

Graduate students get hands-on experience through internships, fellowships, and work on S.C. Sea Grant-funded projects. Photo courtesy S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

In addition to the blueways-greenways work, the first set of Study Group teams examined the status of the blue crab fishery, tested new signage about rip current safety, explored perceptions of climate change in coastal communities, and identified the range of attitudes regarding the current and future value of traditional working waterfronts.

Jon-Erik Taylor, a marine science master’s student at Coastal Carolina University, studied methods of educating the public, and especially tourists, about rip current safety. Taylor’s research found few people used QR codes linked to National Weather Service warnings on rip current safety signs, but anecdotal evidence indicated rip current warnings on hotel television channels could be effective.

“The integrated format used for our study group was very beneficial in that it infused our project with individuals who possessed very different backgrounds and experiences,” Taylor said. “This was critical in the creation and implementation of ideas that saw this project through to completion.”

The Study Group students represent one small segment of the Consortium’s graduate education program, which ranges from internships and fellowships to graduate assistant positions on Sea Grant-funded research projects. The Consortium nominates candidates for the National Sea Grant College Program’s Dean John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coastal Management Fellowship. Also, the Kathryn D. Sullivan Earth and Marine Science Fellowship is supported jointly by S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and the S.C. Space Grant Consortium and seeks to increase the number of highly trained earth and marine scientists. It provides an opportunity for graduate students to conduct research relevant to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and NOAA.

In total, the Consortium in 2016 is supporting 42 master’s and 10 doctoral students working on various projects that advance science while boosting the graduate students’ careers. Students working on those projects often move on to related jobs

For example, Rachel Kalisperis worked as a research assistant on a Consortium-funded study that established Lowcountry intertidal oyster reefs provide essential habitat for many species of finfish and invertebrates. While working on the project, Kalisperis began volunteering at the South Carolina Aquarium. Before she finished her thesis work, she applied for a job as caretaker of the oyster reef exhibit at the aquarium.

Rachel Kalisperis learned about oyster ecology as a graduate student on a Sea Grant-funded project before becoming director of husbandry at the South Carolina Aquarium. Photo by Grace Beahm.

“My graduate research helped me tremendously,” she said of getting her first position at the aquarium, where she now is director of husbandry. “It was really because of my S.C. Sea Grant-funded research experience with Loren that I was able to do that job.”

Robert Crimian had a similar experience. He participated in two Consortium-supported research projects while a graduate student in environmental studies at the College of Charleston . The studies examined local residents’ sense of place, what they valued most about their environment and how they hoped their communities might look in the future. Crimian moved on to become the Southeast coast and ocean partnership coordinator at The Nature Conservancy’s office in Darien, Ga. “Before graduate school, I always thought about the coast from a bio-physical standpoint,” Crimian said. “But now I can see the social part of the equation. If we’re going to solve problems, we need to stop thinking in silos and think more widely about social and ecological systems and how they interact.”

Robert Crimian worked on two S.C. Sea Grant-supported research projects as a graduate student at the College of Charleston before landing a job with the Nature Conservancy. Photo by Grace Beahm.