Kiersten Newtoff: How My College Choice Led Me Here, May 26, 2023

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kiersten Newtoff

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

June 3 – June 16, 2023

Mission: Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Departure Port: Pascagoula, MS

Arrival Port: Galveston, TX

Date: May 26, 2023

The inner marine biologist in me is EXCITED. I shouldn’t say inner, as I do have a master’s degree in marine biology! But I definitely feel like a phony as I studied birds… on land… and never once needed to snorkel or SCUBA dive. I am embarrassed to admit it given my educational background and the fact that I grew up in a coastal town, but I cannot even swim. So sure, sign me up to live on a boat for two weeks!

A life-sized dolphin statue, mounted on a black post in a rock bed lining a brick building. The dolphin is painted with images of dolphins and other marine life (fish, seahorses) swimming in a deep blue background.
One of the hundreds of dolphin statues that dot the Virginia Beach, VA landscape. Photo by Mechelle Hankerson.

If I were to trace back the threads to how I ended up in NOAA’s Teacher at Sea program, it would likely have started in 2007, when I was a junior in high school. Like other juniors, we were all feverishly searching College Board on universities to attend, majors to study, and regions to live in. Growing up in a coastal town and like many girls my age, I was obsessed with dolphins. To be fair, we literally have statues of dolphins all over my hometown, so how can you not be intrigued by them?! In Virginia at the time, there was only one university that offered a degree in marine biology: Old Dominion University. Unfortunately, ODU was only 15 minutes from where I grew up and I was ready to spread my wings and fly a little further from the nest. A great school I found for marine biology was the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), where I applied and was accepted, but the out-of-state tuition was too great for me to financially handle. After conducting more searches on College Board, I applied to Radford University, which is in the mountains of Virginia. Here, I settled into a degree program in Biology, with a concentration of Environmental Biology.

One of the requirements of the Environmental Biology concentration is to take a GIS course. GIS stands for geographic information systems and is a growing technology that has unlimited applications. The intro class I took focused on how to use ArcGIS, the software that is used in the industry. I elected to take an intermediate class where I got to practice my skills more and learn about the applications of the tool. I was the only biology major (and woman!) taking the intermediate course, which is surprising given how much GIS is used in the field now.

As my years at Radford came to an end, I knew that I wanted to teach. I had earned countless opportunities in various teaching or tutoring roles at the college and enjoyed every minute. Well, not every minute. I would get incredibly nervous before each class period and that… processed itself… in different ways… Anyway, if I wanted to pursue a career as a professor, I needed to at least get my master’s degree. With the help of my college professors, they reviewed my materials and shared the expectations of grad school, how to apply, and how to find a research mentor. Since funding was less of an issue as a graduate student, I was not worried about staying within the confines of Virginia. With this boundary lifted, I also set my eyes back on marine biology.

With my environmental background, I was able to shift my mindset away from dolphins to focusing on how humans impact marine organisms. I sent emails to over 50 different professors across 20+ schools and maybe only heard back from about half. I interviewed at 5 different schools, got a verbal offer to study sharks, but was rescinded when their funding fell through. One of the last people I emailed was Dr. Steve Emslie, whose lab at UNCW focused on mercury toxicology in marine birds. I had no interest in birds, and I think they are cheating at being considered a marine animal, but I was starting to realize I needed to expand my scope more because marine biology is a competitive field. And opportunities to study marine organisms larger than an oyster are even more competitive. Steve brought me on to his lab where I shifted my previous dolphin obsession to birds.

I definitely… terned 

Dozens (hundreds?) of two species of terns crowd a beach area. Most are standing, though a few have their wings outstretched. ALl of the terns are white, with black legs, andblack, tufted crowns. The sandwich terns have black bills, while the royal terns have vibrant orange bills.
Colony of Sandwich (foreground) and Royal Terns (background). Photo by Kiersten during graduate school research in the Cape Fear Estuary, North Carolina.
Kiersten, wearing shorts, a t-shirt, a hat, and sunglasses on a sunny day, poses for a photo while gripping a brown pelican carefully with two hands. Her left hand hoists the bird's back, between two semi-outstretched wings, while her left hand holds its bill closed. The pelican braces itself against her middle with its left foot. The right ankle sports a metal band. In the background, we see upland marsh plants, water in the distance, more shoreline beyond the water, and birds flying in the air.
Picture of Kiersten holding a Brown Pelican that she just banded. Taken at Ferry Slip Island in the Cape Fear Estuary, NC.

While I could drone on and on about my research on Brown Pelicans and their mercury loads, we need to focus on the GIS, which is the thread that led me to NOAA. With my fundamental GIS background, I added a spatial variability component to my research to analyze how mercury concentration in Brown Pelican tissues in their breeding colonies varies over space. At UNCW, I took a higher level GIS course entitled Environmental GIS. In this course, I was able to learn about the ecological applications of GIS and about the exciting world of remote sensing. When you think of satellites, you likely think of sensors looking for alien life or GPS or Starlink. And while that is true, NASA has a series of satellites that point back at Earth that remotely sense various parameters, such as particulate matter in our atmosphere, the amount of chlorophyll a on a surface, water temperature, soil moisture, and so much more.

Near the end of the semester, a student in this course shared about an internship she completed and passed out flyers around the room. I took one, but it wasn’t related to teaching so I didn’t immediately jump on it. At this point, I was nearing graduation and was starting my search for a full-time faculty role. Looking back, it was quite ambitious to think I was just going to land a full-time faculty position directly out of my master’s degree. But I did try! I was able to get a couple interviews but was always outcompeted by someone with far more experience than me. Panicking that I need an income after I finished school, I applied for the internship.

a graphic depicting illustrations of satellites on orbits around earth. there are fifteen in this illustration, orbiting earth on three arcs.
Graphic of a subset of NASA’s Earth Observing Satellites. Created by NASA.

In the summer of 2014, I started my internship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in the DEVELOP program. This program utilizes Earth remote sensing to answer ecological questions for organizations around the world. The project that I had worked on that summer was using satellite imagery to measure forest fragmentation. We then compared it to bird presence data, which we collected from the Breeding Bird Survey, a yearly bird count through the U.S. Geological Survey. There were 7 other interns working together in a windowless office that was probably 150 sq ft in size. I would not be surprised if this was originally a storage room, given the wires, pipes, and electrical boxes found in the room.  

Let’s do a quick speed run through parts that do not matter too much to this story: I worked at NASA Goddard for about 1.5 years before transitioning to teaching. I had been teaching part-time at a local community college for some of that time and received another part-time role, leading me to leave NASA. I worked at two institutions for a year, before getting the opportunity to move to China to teach the sciences at an international high school. I was there for 6 months before moving back in January 2017 to the United States after landing a full-time professorship at Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland. I have been with MC since then teaching ecology, evolution, and environmental biology.

Flash forward to 2019, and I see a post by one of my friends on social media. This friend was one of the other interns at NASA, whom I literally shared a desk with (it was a very small office space), who went on to work with the U.S. National Weather Service. And, if you did not already know, they are a part of NOAA! Jamie had shared about the Teacher at Sea program on his social media and after I read through the stories of educators on board, I knew I needed to apply. Add in four years while the world sorted itself, and here I am!

screenshot of a Facebook post from October 24, 2019 announcing NOAA's Teacher at Sea Program's application.

I am incredibly excited for this opportunity. The groundfish survey measures population size structures of the species caught and characterizes the water column at the sampling locations. I look forward to creating data driven lessons for my students to use statistics to measure diversity between stations and to compare that diversity with water quality samples. Our world is changing, and if we are to do something about it, we need to understand it.

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