By: Elizabeth Ramsay
For this issue's staff spotlight, we are excited to feature Ashley Erickson, an advisor on strategic planning at the Center for Ocean Solutions. Ashley has been a part of COS for over six years, beginning as a fellow and quickly moving her way up to her most recent position as Assistant Director for Law and Policy. She has played an integral role in building COS into what it is today and continues to advise our new co-directors as they envision a new era for COS. Ashley will soon be moving on from COS to embark on a new exciting life journey in Southern California, and she will be dearly missed. Before she leaves we wanted to find out a little bit more about what led her to COS and what her time was like while she was here. We also got a chance to ask her a little about her personal life, including her life as a new mom! We hope you enjoy learning all about Ashley as much as we did.
Your interdisciplinary education has provided you a unique position here at COS. What roles have you played during your time here?
I have had a number of roles at COS over the years—first as an early career fellow for law and policy, then as policy and education manager, and most recently as assistant director for law and policy. I recently stepped down from my assistant director post when my family moved to Ventura, CA this summer for my husband’s new job (he joined the faculty in the Environmental Sciences and Resource Management Program at Cal State University Channel Islands). For the last several months I have been advising part-time on strategic planning and other organizational transition issues with our co-directors Fio and Jim, as well as the rest of the staff at COS.
In my 6.5 years at COS I’ve had the privilege to work on linking the best science with policy to try and improve management in a huge range of issue areas – from ocean planning to cumulative impacts and ocean tipping points to fisheries management. I’ve also gotten to be a part of a variety of education and leadership programs over the years – through our MARINE program and advising and lecturing in the Earth Systems Program in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford. I’ve learned so much at COS and as a member of the Stanford community and it has been an honor to work for such an incredible, mission-driven organization. As I wind down my time with the Center and reflect on my experiences, I feel so fortunate to have been part of a team whose solutions have had real impact. I’m certainly sad to leave the organization at this exciting time, especially under the new direction of Jim and Fio, but I look forward watching the Center continue to innovate and effect change on the water.
What drives your interest? What do you think is the most important part of your job?
I was born on the water in a small town in coastal North Carolina. I grew up swimming, water skiing, sailing, surfing, and fishing for crabs. This deep-rooted love for the coast, the ocean, and the water is the foundation for my passion and my commitment to a career in ocean and coastal management. I think the most important part of my job is a willingness to engage in truly interdisciplinary problem-solving. As a lawyer in a research institution, I get to work alongside ocean scientists, educators, and communicators. Being willing to learn across disciplines, ask questions, and understand jargon, perspectives, and cultures, is the only way we will crack environmental problems and develop lasting solutions.
Tell me about your favorite project that you were involved in and what you did.
My favorite project at COS has been the Ocean Tipping Points project. Since its inception, I’ve been able to focus on the law and policy governing how we might better incorporate ecological thresholds into existing statutory and regulatory requirements. I was also a part of the communications team figuring out how to package and share our findings. This resulted in a web portal targeting ocean and coastal managers that really has a lot of potential to improve their practice. The best part of the project for me was being part of a large and incredibly interdisciplinary team of scientific researchers and practitioners. I am humbled by what these experts do, and am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with and get to know each of them over the years. I’m proud of what we accomplished as a team.
What do you find most challenging when working in the environmental research/law interface?
One of our biggest challenges is the complex nature of environmental problems and sometimes feeling like the issues are just too big to solve. From my research on legal, policy, and management issues, I’ve often found that we need to tackle ocean problems that fall outside the legal jurisdiction of the decision-maker, or, as with most environmental issues, that the problems are shared across multiple agency jurisdictions. As you can imagine, this complicates things, and so I’ve found over the years that our engagement with the decision-making community is often centered around improving cross-jurisdictional agency coordination.
Before coming to COS, you completed a Knauss Fellowship in Washington D.C. Was there anything surprising or new that really stood out to you when you working with Congressman Sam Farr?
My biggest take away from my year on the Hill was gaining an understanding for just how much influence one voice can have. Members of congress work for their constituents. They rely on them for their vote and in many cases go above and beyond to make sure they are happy. I was in awe of how much work Congressman Farr’s office put towards constituent engagement – from taking their individual phone calls to responding personally to their letters. Before my time in DC, I considered members of Congress to be out of reach, off in some distant, marbled building. But after staffing a member, I felt much more empowered as a voting constituent. On a lighter note, I also marveled at the power and importance of the physical business card in that town – I actually had a real Rolodex on my desk and it was bursting at the seams within just a few months.
What is something you enjoy doing on your days off?
Well… I used to do a lot of things on my days off, and now I pretty much just do the one thing (which I enjoy very much!): care for my 11-month old son Huck. He is a cool little guy, so much fun, and very much on the move – so he really doesn’t allow for much personal time. That said, when I do get some time to myself, one of my biggest passions is gardening, and specifically vegetable gardening. I get incredible satisfaction from helping things grow and then enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of my labors!
What is something not many people know about you?
I can wiggle my ears – a skill I discovered at a very young age and which, as you might imagine, has taken me quite far in life.
Where did you grow up?
In an area called Weeksville, located about 20 miles outside the town of Elizabeth City, in coastal North Carolina. A rural region of mostly woods and farms, the closest stoplight to my house was 10 miles away, and it was one of those lights that constantly blinks red in one direction and yellow in the other. My house was right on the water – so my childhood was spent swimming and fishing on the Albemarle Sound – part of the second largest estuary in the United States! – and playing in the woods, a place we also endearingly call ‘the swamp.’ As you can imagine, I loved it as a child and hated its remoteness as a teenager (especially before I got my driver’s license!), but now I can’t wait to get back and soak up the evening sunsets over the sound as an adult.
Message to a young scientist who wants to get involved in law and policy, especially in this day and age?
Don’t underestimate the power of your single voice, even at the highest level of government. Do not be discouraged by the current political climate – and know that credible, salient, and legitimate information is needed now more than ever. Become an expert in your field and engage in decision-making processes relevant to your research and interests, and know that you can have an impact at any scale – from local to international. Grow your network and hone your verbal and written communications skills.
If you had any other job in the world what would it be?
I have such a passion for plants and gardening, I often daydream of owning my own plant nursery. I suppose it could still be something I do one day, but in the meantime, I love visiting a good nursery chock full of local plants and just roaming the aisles.