Making Waves

Marine Resource Management program celebrates a half-century

By Nancy Steinberg

Spring/Summer 2024

There was, as they say, something in the water.

Multiple somethings, in fact, and they weren’t just in the water. In the late 1960s, the U.S. faced a series of environmental crises that altered our environmental awareness and led to the passage of a number of pieces of critical environmental legislation, much of it aimed at protecting our ocean and coasts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency were constituted in their current forms in 1970. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as well as legislation that created the National Marine Sanctuaries system. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, governing fisheries management in federal waters, came along four years later.

These new offices needed staff members with a particular combination of skills: people who understood our ocean and coasts from a scientist’s perspective, but also grasped principles of law, policy, management, economics and communications. People who had a passion for protecting our shared resources but also believed that people themselves are an inextricable part of the ecosystem.

Enter Oregon State University’s Marine Resource Management program, a M.S. and certificate program founded fifty years ago this year, in 1974, now housed in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The current director of the program, Karen McLeod, explains how MRM fit into the ocean management landscape of the time: “Graduates of the OSU oceanography program were starting to get management-related positions, as all of these new entities were growing. But they didn’t actually have the background for it,” she says. “MRM was created to prepare graduates for those roles. It combined the depth of oceanographic experience that students were gaining at OSU with training in management, economics, fisheries policy and other disciplines.”

Karen McLeod

Now, as then, the program is the pinnacle of interdisciplinary education. Students are required to take a core set of rigorous oceanography courses; classes in coastal policy and marine resource management; a field class focused on the Oregon landscape (and seascape); and electives.

Here is part of the MRM secret sauce: Electives can be taken across the university, in economics, science communication, history, ecology … any subjects that support a student’s interests and their required thesis work. Similarly, thesis project advisors can come from any part of the university or beyond its walls — in industry, government and nonprofit sectors.

Hundreds of MRM alumni are scattered across the country, protecting our ocean, coasts and communities via jobs in government agencies, NGOs, educational institutions, consulting firms and more. They are developing policy at the highest levels, advocating for people and ecosystems, collecting critical data and teaching science and stewardship to the next generation. They are finding each other, and other like-minded people, and using their interdisciplinary skills every day.

With such a huge milestone anniversary comes reflection. What has the impact of this program been? What strengths does it impart to its graduates? What does the future hold for MRM?

MRM alumni are happy to talk about these issues. They are enthusiastic about their MRM experience, all exemplifying the motto coined by previous MRM director, Flaxen Conway: Once an MRMer, always an MRMer.

Origin stories

Some MRMers take a path straight from their undergraduate degree to grad school. Many get a start in the working world first and come to MRM while taking stock of their next steps. Lindsay Carroll (MRM ‘16) was taking water and seagrass samples in a marsh in Chesapeake Bay, dreaming of experiencing the marine environment in some other part of the country, far from where she grew up. Kelsey Lane (MRM ‘20) was working for a vessel-based marine education program, wanting to study oceanography but not only oceanography — she wasn’t sure what the future held but maybe she wanted to lean into education. Craig Risien (MRM ‘06) had finished an oceanography degree in South Africa and was planning on starting a Ph.D. program at Oregon State, but something didn’t quite feel right – he began to think that the traditional Ph.D. path was not going to get him where he wanted to go. And Hannah Nolan (MRM ‘20) was holding five job titles at three different Portland non-profits and knew it was time to up her career game.

Lindsay Carroll

Carroll is now the marine education coordinator for Oregon Sea Grant. Lane is an instructor of oceanography at Oregon State. Risien stayed at Oregon State as well, now managing the cyberinfrastructure for the federal Ocean Observatories Initiative. And Nolan is the expedition and community outreach specialist for Schmidt Ocean Institute.

They all landed well. But what drew them, and others, to MRM in the first place?

For some, it was the emphasis on rigorous science in a resource policy degree program. For others, it was the emphasis on resource policy in a rigorous science degree program. For all, it came down to the truly interdisciplinary nature of the program. Michael Murphy (MRM ‘99), now director of communications for NOAA Research, explains that the science he learned was critical for his current role. As a communicator with a science background, “I can actually interact with the source material, as a scientist, and then decide how to communicate it” he says. Nolan, with Schmidt Ocean Institute, agrees: “When we have a project regarding, say, the chemistry of hydrothermal vents, I need to understand the science in order to explain it.” “Interdisciplinary” is probably the word MRMers use more than any other. Dom Kone (MRM ‘19), now a senior science officer at the California Ocean Science Trust, says “I think one of the most impactful components of MRM was that it was a very interdisciplinary program, where you’re not only taking courses in the natural sciences but you also have the opportunity to take courses aligned with your research or your career aspirations. Having that training prepared me well for my job now – I have the skill set and the comfort level to interact with people with very different backgrounds and expertise. I can take their perspectives, their advice, their opinions and combine them with my own to come up with solutions for many of the issues we’re facing in California.”

Michael Murphy

Annie Merrill (MRM ‘23), now the ocean and estuaries manager for Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, notes that the broad interdisciplinary approach of MRM helped her at a time when she wasn’t sure what she wanted her career to look like. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a marine scientist, or if I wanted to be involved in policy or advocacy work. Because that path was very unclear to me, I was looking for an interdisciplinary graduate program and found MRM – it was exactly what I was looking for.”

Beyond the classroom

It’s not only what they learn in class that prepares MRMers for diverse and impactful careers. Alums cite the many intangibles of the program as well, including the emphasis on ecosystem-based management, the collaborative ethos of the program, and the independent research requirement that, for many, went beyond intellectual exercise and became their first real-world project on their eventual career path.

Dom Kone

McLeod, the program’s director, notes that most MRM students already bend towards ecosystem-based management when they arrive at OSU, even if they don’t yet know that term. “MRM attracts motivated students who want to make a difference at those intersections of coasts and people,” she notes. “Then in classes they are asked, ‘what does it mean to treat the oceans as coupled systems of people and nature?’”

Brian Ahlers (MRM ‘17), now a sustainable seafood specialist with SCS Global Services, notes, “If you’re going into the MRM program, you have to be genuinely interested in social issues – marine issues that apply to communities and people in some way.” Merrill says that the MRM program nurtures that proclivity: “It’s a common theme throughout MRM courses,” she says, “You can’t take human dimensions, or the people themselves, out of the ecosystem.”

Annie Merrill

Many alums cite their student cohort as another huge strength of the program. Lane describes the cohort system as providing “a powerful learning community” that serves as a critical support system during the degree program and a network of experts to rely on afterward. “They’ve gone in so many interesting directions — I’m excited to have some of them appear as guest lecturers in my classes,” she says.

Risien adds, “I think going through grad school can be sort of lonely from time to time. And I think the way MRM is structured by cohort is hugely beneficial – we all went through classes together and supported each other.”

The independent project requirement was also critical to these alums’ success. It is almost eerie how closely many of those projects resemble what alums are doing today. For example, Jessica Keys (MRM ’04) analyzed the extent to which the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy was considering public comment as part of its decision-making process. She now collects public input in her position as senior natural resources advisor for U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon. Nolan examined how data collected in real time from OSU’s state-of-the-art research vessel (still under construction) could be used for educational purposes, especially for students in minoritized groups, a perfect lead-in to her job connecting people in real time with research expeditions aboard Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel. Linus Stoltz (MRM ‘21) helped develop, distribute and manage a set of oxygen sensors for Oregon commercial crabbers to deploy on their pots; now he coordinates and reviews data collection undertaken by New England fishermen for a wide range of projects. Murphy was perfectly positioned to move into NOAA after his project exploring the market potential for Pacific whiting. “One of the real benefits of the MRM program is that it provides students with the opportunity to do a project that is very applied, very real. I felt like I had already started in the workforce,” he says.

Brian Ahlers

MRMers having an impact

What have fifty years of this interdisciplinary, collaborative, applied, wholistic training meant out there in the real world? Simply stated, MRMers have made a huge difference in every realm they have entered.

After Deanna Caracciolo (MRM ‘17) finished her degree, she worked for the Oregon Coastal Management Program where she held two different positions providing critical guidance on the state’s rocky habitat management strategy, including ensuring its consistency with the requirements of the federal Coastal Zone Management Act. She then co-founded and now serves as chief operating officer of a consulting firm, Sea & Shore Solutions, where she leads projects with governments, non-profits and others to develop solutions for coastal management problems.

Will Klajbor’s (MRM ‘20) work as a NOAA affiliate perfectly embodies the MRM ethos: He was tasked with conducting an integrated ecosystem assessment for the Gulf of Mexico that would provide information on the potential impacts of developing wind energy projects there. But Klajbor, armed with the lessons of his MRM program, refused to do things the way they had always been done. “I thought, we have this unique opportunity – how often in resource management do we know when and approximately where an intervention to the ecosystem is going to happen? If you knew that, what data would you collect? What baselines would you establish? So we created a conceptual model of the Gulf ecosystem that includes a range of stakeholder perspectives and interprets the word ‘ecosystem’ very broadly to include social, cultural and economic elements as well. We think this approach will lead to more robust baselines, allow for more wholistic management approaches, and even serve as a public resource.”

More MRM Voices

It was the transdisciplinary nature of the program that helped me learn how to have tricky conversations around tricky topics with diverse audiences.
–Deanna Caracciolo

A lot of people talk about going to law school because they feel like that might prepare them for working in a decision-making role. I think what’s equally important is for folks to have a science background in those jobs.
–Jessica Keys

More MRM graduates would mean a workforce that’s very skilled in interacting with different types of people, and able to use disparate information to solve problems that can’t be addressed with only one type of expertise. You’d get a greater diversity of ideas and solutions.
–Dom Kone

I value my MRM background in my teaching role because I think it helps me frame marine issues for my students in a way that’s a little less overwhelming and more solutions-oriented.
–Kelsey Lane

Learning to ask for help can be hard, but we learned to do that within our MRM cohort. And that helped us get used to what it means to reach out for help in the work that we do, too.
–Lindsay Carroll

MRM is kind of like a Swiss army knife.
–Linus Stoltz

It’s clear that MRM has been shaping the workforce for natural resources on the [Oregon] coast. I think the MRM ethos, how we’re taught to think about the big picture and the interactions between humans and ecosystems, is leaching into how we think about the Oregon coast.
–Annie Merrill

I was attracted to the program because of the can-do attitude of the faculty – their willingness to collaborate and to give me access to such great opportunities. It was such a privilege to be able to tap into so many disciplines with world-renowned scientists.
–Brian Ahlers

Through our collective education and experience, I think we’re making the ocean, the coast, a better place.
–Michael Murphy

Print Friendly, PDF & Email