Marine Education Project Manager
University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory Marine Education Center
Rae swims in a mixed stew of biology, education, and the arts, bringing many aspects of her experience and personality to her work.
Although Rae was tempted by art in high school, biology won out. But what kind of biology? For two years, Rae tried to fit in, but her first two years, when she tried out different classes, it was discouraging. “These classes really hit me with the feeling that I don’t belong in the biological sciences.
Ocean + Art = Mississippi??
A SEcond Diagnosis
“Right when I entered college,” she says, “I didn’t realize that ocean science was a field I could get into.” It wasn’t until the end of her sophomore year that she learned about her university’s (California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly SLO) marine science program. As a junior, she declared her concentration in marine biology and conservation. As an upperclassman, she focused on fisheries management and conservation. “My grades were slightly better, but I was still not an A student. I felt that I was getting there, because the ocean was what I was interested in.”
But the class that impacted her career the most was Communicating Ocean Sciences for Informal Audiences, or COSIA. Now she was teaching ocean science — and sharing her passion for it.
“That class drove home the point that ocean science is definitely what I want to be involved in, but the education and mentor side is what I was leaning towards.” For Rae, the class opened a pathway. “It’s talking about, if you’re working at an environmental center, an aquarium, or a zoo, how you’re making meaningful interaction in a not-so-formal setting.”
Cal Poly makes it mandatory to get mentored work experience before graduating with the university’s philosophy of “Learn By Doing!”. The science research project felt daunting — but the mentorship involved changed both Rae’s self-image and the principles she would carry forward into her own work intentionally matching students with internships. “My mentor was one of the first in my life who saw past — well, I didn’t have the best grades when I was in college., because I had personal health struggles, limitations on my test-taking abilities, and I was involved in lots of outside things that rounded out my college experience, including a late night job and playing competitive club volleyball. She believed in me, when on paper I might not have been her first choice. GPA-wise, I probably wouldn’t have made it through a typical application process, but I’d been able to squeeze in volunteer opportunities, gaining more experience that way. Where I was lacking in grades, I tried to make up by volunteering at the aquarium, different nature centers, and mini-internship opportunities. And, because that meant(mentor?) saw past the surface level [of grades], we connected as humans.” Reflecting on her personal struggles and lessons learned through college, Rae knows that grades and experiences on paper do not define someone’s worth or potential. She fully acknowledges the unpaid, volunteer opportunities she was able to participate in are a privilege and now works diligently to make entry into an ocean science career pathways more accessible while always striving for an empathy-first approach.
“Make the most out of every opportunity you engage in and find your community!”
Rae’s words of wisdom is that every opportunity you engage in is experience.
There are amazing experiences. There are bad experiences you will have and you leave with lessons learned of what to avoid, call out, or do differently in your next opportunity. And even neutral experiences, where you leave with a “meh” feeling. Also she notes that your experience of the opportunity itself can be (and will be) complex. For example, loving the work culture at one job but not feeling like your work has purpose. Or, knowing that you have support among colleagues but not feeling like you belong.
Rae has worked jobs in food industry, volleyball coaching, data management, and education where at the time did not seem relevant to her career path, still had significant skill development and impact on her leadership skills.
Now Rae works with paid internship programs and creating inclusive mentorship frameworks.
In addition to dedicated mentorship, Rae attributes her growth in leadership and professional skills to her consistent involvement in professional organizations/societies.
She highly recommends that students seeking internships hold to a few principles:
Research your opportunities that align with, compliment, or even help you identify your interests:,Really looking for those that you’re going to benefit from.
Be sure you’ll be compensated for your time in some shape or form, such as dedicated professional development, housing, food, and/or a stipend (to pay for these), and a paycheck (to pay you for your time).
Look for networks and groups with which you share interests and/or community identity with, and note the opportunities they post on their websites and social media.
See below for examples of some wonderful organizations that Rae collaborates with or serves on
Black in Marine Science (BIMS) https://www.blackinmarinescience.org
Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science (BWEEMS)
Minorities in Shark Science (MISS)
National Marine Educators Association (NMEA) [Rae currently serves as co-chair of the Equity and Belonging Committee]
The Society for Women in Marine Science (SWMS) [Rae currently serves as Clerk on the Steering Committee]
Ocean + Art = Mississippi??
“If you told me, this small San Diego girl, you’re going to do an ocean job in Mississippi, I would not have believed you. And so now I’m based here, and this is a project I’m doing for the NOAA Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute, it’s working with a paid internship program bringing students currently from HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities, into the ocean science field with fully-covered internship experiences. My role is the program manager of the program with my partner at Tuskegee, so we both manage the program, connecting our students with the researchers. I feel like with my diversity of experiences, some really, really great and some not great— is being able to impart some of my personal knowledge — like hey this is a great pathway to get into, the end goal being increasing diversity in the ocean science field, which everyone knows is a great aspiration to go for but we want to make sure we put substance behind that so that it’s an inclusive field, they can sustainably see themselves in. That’s where I am now and I’m definitely grateful for my past experiences, working up to what I do now.”
Sustainability plays a big role in all aspects of Rae’s work including ocean science and art!
She utilizes secondhand, vintage, or New-old stock materials
Rae Rae The Science BAE
Throughout her life, Rae has always leaned on her superpower of sleep. But the shift from “superpower” to hindering everyday life became more and more apparent. She was able to pursue medical specialists and understands the privilege of receiving diagnoses of several chronic illnesses that comes with time, travel, costs, and more.
Rae’s diagnosis of narcolepsy answered the question of why she was spending so much time working on not being asleep. “I have narcolepsy type 2, and that made a lot of things clear. [As a result of the sleep study that led to the diagnosis] the science part of me got to see the data aspect of it. So in addition to validating my feelings, I was also like ‘oh! I can see on paper those time points of when I’m falling asleep.’ I’ve been asleep for more than half of my life up to this point.” Now, as the result of treatment, she feels more awake, which led to some great pros and even
cons. Pro: More energy and to do things she is passionate about and spend conscious time with the people she loves, Cons: Other symptoms becoming more prominent and brought into the light. Leading to another diagnosis...
A SECOND DIAGNOSIS
Postural Orthostatis Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) can take a long time to be diagnosed, Rae says, because it can appears to be several unrelated, one-off events. “I moved a lot in the last several years,” says Rae, which meant she didn’t see one set of doctors consistently.” For her, POTS means dizziness and fainting spells. “The extreme is when I pass out.” Before that, she might get light-headed or experience a migraine; her blood pressure might drop and/or her heart rate skyrocket. “It’s like my heart is playing gravity catchup.”
So what’s it been like having all these symptoms without knowing what was going on? “A struggle,” says Rae. She mentions the “spoon theory” of energy expenditure. “It’s how many spoons of energy you have a day. Some days I can’t do basic things. It can be scary and overwhelming, but there’s also a sense of vindication. In college, there were finals I missed because I physically could not wake up, and then I was told I was lazy. That word rang in my head. Luckily I had good professors and mentors that believed in me, outside of what I looked like on paper. Having my mentor look past that barrier — that D’s and F’s don’t translate to your quality of work or what you bring to the team — was pivotal.”
That affirmation has helped Rae seek out workplaces that have accommodations and are flexible in the days when her symptoms flare up. “It’s refreshing to find a ‘humans-first’ mentality.”