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Spotlight: Reconnecting people and nature

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Staci Lewis

Early Career Fellow

Published November 27, 2023

At a very young age, I was concerned by how we were impacting nature.

I grew up in Alabama swimming in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico all year long. I remember the smell of the sea, the feel of sand between my toes, but I also remember watching the coastline change. Condos replaced sand dunes. New piers and boat launches obstructed shorelines. Then, when a storm came through, no sand was left, and entire buildings were wiped out followed by more development.

One day at the beach, I was swept out with the undertow. Surviving this deadly force of the ocean humbled me to the power of Mother Nature. I wanted to understand the ocean even more and help reverse the damage we were causing, but I didn’t know how at the time.

I am the first generation in my family to go to college. My senior year, I took a field course in Barbados that changed my life. While in the field, my professor assigned me to study a coral-eating polychaete worm called a fireworm for my class project. She would later tell me that she gave me that assignment so I would meet Joan Marsden, a female pioneer in her field of coral reef ecology who still lived in Barbados.

Joan broke the glass ceiling as one of the first women to publish in Nature in the 1960s. But it was her method of teaching that forever stuck with me. After an initial introduction, Joan and I connected quickly. We spent a lot of time on the beach, eating fish cutter sandwiches overlooking the reefs she spent most of her career studying. She would ask, what are you seeing in the world? What are you seeing that's different? She taught me how to use my observations for scientific inquiry. 

We met daily for two weeks to talk about my data collection, my struggles and triumphs, my heartache and homesickness. As my trip was nearing its end, Joan and I made a pact to keep working together on fireworms. The day she and I were to have our last meeting, instead of Joan joining me for fish cutters, my professor walked up to our beach lunch spot to tell me that Joan had suddenly died in the night. I still remember the feeling of my stomach dropping and the world spinning. Joan was my first mentor, and she was gone.

My short time with Joan brought me clarity about my career path. I realized that marine conservation combined my love for the ocean with a desire to work with people. I returned to Barbados as a Fulbright Fellow to complete the research I started with Joan, and studied fireworms for my Master’s research in the Flower Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Joan also taught me the power of mentorship. It doesn't have to be a year, a month, or even a week’s worth of interactions – it’s about helping someone realize their potential.

It was through my Fulbright Fellowship work in the Folkestone Marine Reserve in Barbados that I decided I wanted to work on marine conservation solutions in partnership with fishers, managers, and politicians. So I set my course for Washington DC where I would spend the next decade at NOAA, various NGOs, and on Capitol Hill. 

The biggest challenge during my time in federal ocean policy was recalibrating my expectations of success. A big “win” was getting four words into a law over the course of five months. On the heels of that success, I felt disconnected from my initial drive to connect people to their natural surroundings, so I applied to Stanford’s E-IPER Program to earn my PhD.

During my dissertation, I looked to immerse myself in a place where environmental stewardship was culturally significant. I found that (and more) in the Republic of Palau, an island nation in the Western Pacific. Now at the Center for Ocean Solutions, I study how regional leaders manage their marine resources, like fisheries, and the lessons they offer to the rest of the world about the power of collective approaches to conservation.

It’s been 20 years since I spent that field season in Barbados and 35 years since my awakening to the environment. As a new mom, I now have even more motivation to create lasting change for a better future. When I walk the beaches of my youth with my son, I still see the coastline rapidly changing. But I also see an awakening in people. Our changing planet can no longer be ignored, nor can the part we play in saving it for our children.