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MUIR summer fellows

Mentoring Student Researchers: Q&A with MUIR Summer 2021 Fellows

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Student involvement is central to many aspects of our work at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions (COS). One of the ways that we collaborate with students is through the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s Mentoring Undergraduates in Interdisciplinary Research (MUIR) program which provides stipends for Stanford undergraduate students to conduct interdisciplinary environmental research for 10 weeks during the summer. In summer 2021, we had the pleasure of hosting two MUIR fellows: Natalie Cross (she/her) and Diego Rafael Pérez (he/him). We sat down with Natalie and Diego to get a behind-the-scenes view of undergraduate research at Stanford.

Natalie is a senior studying earth systems. For her MUIR fellowship, Natalie worked with researchers from our initiative on Addressing Illegal Fishing and Labor Abuses, looking specifically at how port-level infrastructure and regulation can be utilized to combat harmful fishing practices. You can view her final project, entitled ‘The Power of Ports,’ here

Click here to learn more about her experience as a MUIR fellow

Diego is a junior studying bioengineering. For his MUIR fellowship, Diego collaborated with researchers from our Sustainable Ocean Economies Initiative, using data analytics to better understand how fisheries interact with large-scale marine protected areas and how conservation policies impact fishing efforts.

Click here to learn more about his experience as a MUIR fellow



How did you learn about the MUIR program?

I took the Social Ocean (ENVRES 220) course last winter where Eric Hartge (COS Research Development Manager) was a guest speaker. Eric’s brief overview of all the work being done at COS really caught my attention, so much so that I ended up emailing him after that class excited to learn more. That was one of the first times I’d ever cold emailed someone asking for opportunities to get involved, and it paid off in ways that I never could have imagined.


How did you design your research project?

I was able to self-design many of the specific elements of my project. My advisors were interested in learning more about how port infrastructure influences the regulation and enforcement against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activity. I helped to create the list of ports that I’d be investigating (with a lot of input and advice from my advisors) and also developed my own procedure of how I would go about investigating each of these ports and the specific questions that I hoped to answer.''


What motivated you to pursue that particular topic?

I’m an Earth Systems major on the Oceans, Atmosphere and Climate track and spent a lot of time before this project studying many of the physical/biological aspects of the ocean (circulation, biology, etc). I initially reached out to COS because I was really interested in exploring more of the social and political realm of ocean issues. As I learned more about the severity of IUU-related issues, I was motivated to dig deeper because IUU isn’t discussed enough in marine science spaces and I want to change that.

Who at COS did you work with? What did you learn about how to make the most of mentorships?

Jim Leape (COS Co-Director) was my primary mentor for this project, and he went above and beyond helping not only with the logistics of my actual research but also served as a mentor for me in my academic life outside of COS.

In terms of my actual research project, I worked mostly with Colette Wabnitz (COS Lead Scientist) and Liz Selig (COS Deputy Director). They were both incredible mentors and I am extremely grateful for all the assistance they provided throughout this summer! Not only are they both very knowledgeable scholars in this field but they also were really interested in helping me to develop my own skills as a researcher. They encouraged me to take these concepts in directions that most interested me and provided me with the tools necessary to become a confident researcher, interviewer and produce a complete deliverable that I’m ultimately very proud of.

I also worked with Eric Hartge, who was really helpful in the logistics of both helping to arrange this fellowship and also anything that came up throughout the summer. He was very welcoming and I would not have been able to be anywhere near as successful without his support.


What aspect of this project pushed you out of your comfort zone and what did you learn from that experience? 

I think the interview component pushed me the most out of my comfort zone. I had the opportunity to conduct interviews with a few experts who were familiar with the ports that I was studying. Liz and Colette were kind enough to join me in these interviews, however I was responsible for coming up with the questions and leading the interviews. This was definitely a nerve-wracking experience but ultimately I learned really useful skills about how to effectively conduct a research interview. I’ve even been able to put those skills into practice this quarter in some of my classes!


What advice do you have for undergraduates who are considering the MUIR program or who are looking for opportunities for research experience?

I would highly recommend inquiring with faculty members if you are any bit interested! The MUIR fellowship is designed to support a wide variety of interdisciplinary environmental research and it’s extremely important to get compensated for the work, time and effort you put into a research project! I’d recommend reaching out to research groups that you’d be interested in learning more about. If you’re interested in COS, definitely reach out to Eric Hartge, he’s super helpful and loves to find ways that interested students can get involved. Otherwise, just reach out to faculty and/or students who are working on projects that seem interesting to you. Sometimes the best way to frame it is that you’re just interested in learning more, not necessarily with a specific role in mind, and there’s a high chance that a faculty member or research group will have a gap that you could fill!


What are you most proud of after completing this project, and what do you hope for the future of this work?

I’m really proud of the final deliverable I created from this project. I’ve used the StoryMaps platform in the past but this was definitely the most thorough and effective StoryMap that I’ve made. I hope that it is informative, engaging and will reach a wide audience to get people thinking about these issues and learning more about how IUU manifests in different locations around the world.


How did you learn about the MUIR program?

Last winter, I learned about ocean policy and law for the first time in a course called International Environmental Law and Policy: Oceans and Climate Change (INTNLREL135A) taught by former COS Ocean Design Fellow, Kevin Chand, and it sparked my curiosity about ocean issues. Jim Leape and Eric Hartge were guest speakers so I got a lot of exposure to what COS does in that course. I connected with Eric after class to ask him about research opportunities and then applied for the fellowship.


How did you design your research project?

I met with Eric and we ran through a bunch of different project ideas that I could work on, essentially different aspects of COS initiatives. I was most interested in researching large-scale marine protected areas (LSMPAs) and I submitted my proposal to the MUIR program. Once the grant was approved, that’s when we hit the ground running and started ideating on the details of my project. I connected with Staci Lewis (COS Early Career Fellow), who works on the Sustainable Ocean Economies initiative, and we started to identify how I could bring my background in analytics to a COS project. We decided I would work with some Global Fishing Watch data, which is important in informing how LSMPAs impact fisheries, and generate some visualizations from the metrics used to characterize LSMPAs.


What motivated you to pursue that particular topic?

I wanted to work with LSMPAs because I learned about them in INTNLREL135A. I saw how beneficial they are to conservation efforts and how much room there is for analytics to inform conservation policy. I was really motivated to learn more about the interface between science and policy. I know that I want to be a scientist because I’m very analytical, but I also want to have an impact in the work that I do, so it clicked for me that I should be working in a space that bridges science and policy. I also just really like ocean issues. I grew up by the ocean in Santa Barbara and feel motivated to conserve ocean biodiversity, so this project was a great fit for me.


Who at COS did you work with? What did you learn about how to make the most of mentorships?

I was directly mentored by Staci Lewis, Eric Hartge, and Professor Fio Micheli (COS Co-Director). I also got to interact with other members of the LSMPA group at COS including Allison DedrickKatie ThompsonLucie Hazen and Collin Closek.

From my interactions with my mentors at COS, I learned to not hesitate in reaching out because my mentors had a significant breadth of knowledge and they love talking about their work. For example, when I was analyzing the specifics of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, an LSMPA in Palau, I knew who to go to because not only do my mentors have breadth of knowledge over the entire ocean policy space, they also have significant expertise in specific areas. Staci is an expert in Palau’s policy initiatives so I could just ask her my questions and she was super willing to help out.

This whole project was spurred from one class. I just learned about these topics this year and felt some connection to them. I was able to create and complete this project because mentors at COS made themselves available.


What aspect of this project pushed you out of your comfort zone and what did you learn from that experience?

On an analytical front, I was pushed out of my comfort zone when I first began analyzing Global Fishing Watch’s Fishing Effort dataset because I had never worked with such a big dataset before. I had to learn how to process and generate insights from big data. That was a technical challenge I had to overcome.

I was also pushed out of my comfort zone in a general sense by working with policy. I’ve studied sustainable development before from an engineering perspective, but this was the first time I was introduced to a policy space and forced to navigate a whole new set of limitations like stakeholders, competing interests, livelihoods and backgrounds. I had to learn how to communicate the insights that I was generating in a way that would be meaningful for all those stakeholders.


What advice do you have for undergraduates who are considering the MUIR program or who are looking for opportunities for research experience?

My research experiences have been the most meaningful part of my Stanford education, so I highly recommend other students apply to this type of opportunity. Even if you’re uncertain of your ability to conduct research, you are not expected to come into this as an expert. You are going to get mentorship. There are people who will mentor you and teach you how to achieve your goals. I learned so much throughout this project. It can seem intimidating, but people want to help you learn and grow. I highly recommend applying.


What are you most proud of after completing this project, and what do you hope for the future of this work?

I’ve learned a lot about what I like, which I’m really proud of, because it’s reinforced my motivation to continue studying sustainable development. I’m also really proud that I was able to identify an interesting aspect of ocean policy where policymakers want analytical insights about how protected areas are impacting fisheries. I was able to contribute to that and it’s heartening to see that Global Fishing Watch, a huge organization, recently announced that they are developing tools to address similar issues to what I was working on.

As for the future, I’m continuing the work I started over the summer as a research assistant at COS. Currently, I am compiling my insights from regions in the Southwest Pacific, particularly how LSMPAs affected fishing activity within certain countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones. I’m also exploring how we can develop computational models to assess how human practices change with changing conditions. I’m excited to keep learning and hopefully develop insights that can contribute to future COS initiatives.


Learn more about how COS engages with students

Learn more about Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s Mentoring Undergraduates in Interdisciplinary Research (MUIR)

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