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By Dylan McDowell
Laura Ferguson has dreamed of being a scientist since she was a child in Illinois, tromping through local streams. Her early explorations instilled a love of nature that led her to foreign countries and provided the necessary skills for her current post: coordinating with national scientists to protect sea turtles and other iconic species.
Ferguson is serving as a Knauss Fellow in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Office of Science and Technology. The year-long opportunity offers graduate students (or recent graduate students) focused on marine or coastal science an opportunity to work for a federal agency or legislative office in the Washington, D.C., area. Ferguson is one of four fellows from Oregon Sea Grant this year, all of whom are graduates of Oregon State University (OSU).
The experience marks Ferguson's first time working in a formal office, but she is hardly deskbound. Her mentors believe in immersive learning, and Ferguson already has traveled to Peru for a conference and this June will deploy to St. Croix to join a research team monitoring leatherback sea turtle nests and hatchlings.
"You cannot learn science by sitting in an office," said Mridula Srinivasan, a marine ecologist with NOAA and one of Ferguson's mentors in the Knauss program. "You need to go to the field to learn about the science and learn about the animal, and then you can have a much better appreciation for what type of research is being done and the impact it has."
At NOAA's headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, Ferguson is a generalist in an office full of specialists. The Knauss Fellowship requires her to balance multiple projects simultaneously, ranging from overseeing funding for sea turtle research to coordinating with scientists across the country for NOAA's science advisory board.
"Being in Silver Spring, at HQ, is allowing me to get a bird's eye view of what NOAA does across the country," Ferguson said. "I think all of the facilitation of science is very neat. The more I hear about the regions, the more I think that I might want to be there, closer to the ground. But I wouldn't have known that without coming here."
Ferguson joined the Peace Corps directly after her undergraduate studies, and was stationed in a small Peruvian village 12,000 feet above sea level. Inspired by her experience working at the community level, she subsequently enrolled in OSU's Marine Resource Management (MRM) master's program, to pursue the connection between science and stakeholders.
"MRM was so great for preparing me for this," Ferguson said. "People want to work at this nexus between science, policy and management. In my professional path, I worked in science in my undergrad, got a degree in management for my graduate studies, and now I have this policy fellowship. It set me up perfectly."
For her master's project, Ferguson investigated how an OSU-led water modeling project, called Willamette Water 2100 (WW2100), engaged stakeholders from across the region. She interacted with researchers ranging from engineers to social scientists, while also interviewing community members who participated in the research process.
"We had 40-plus different researchers and students and maybe 20 disciplines," said Sam Chan, WW2100 project lead, OSG Extension water quality specialist and Ferguson's advisor. "It was kind of daunting. The fact that she was able to be so comfortable in this transdisciplinary work setting is going to help her a lot."
Ferguson developed a framework for scientists to more effectively engage stakeholders from the outset of a research project, and her recommendations include adding criteria to grant evaluations that recognize stakeholder engagement as a core aspect of successful research. Ferguson and Chan continue to collaborate long-distance as she submits her research to scientific journals.
Ferguson draws on her extensive research background for her work at NOAA, including data collection for a pilot project that investigates how a changing climate will impact protected species such as whales and sea turtles.
"The ultimate goal is to identify which species are more at risk and which species are less at risk, and use that knowledge to focus management and conservation efforts," said Ferguson, who is organizing a workshop for roughly 100 scientists to share research on protected species and encourage collaboration.
Outside of work, Ferguson is determined to make the most of her year in Silver Spring, which is a stone's throw from Washington, D.C. When she's not tagging turtles in the Caribbean or coordinating scientists, she is devoted to the equally strenuous task of marathon training. Ferguson has found that running 26.2 miles around D.C. provides her with ample time to experience the city's many historic monuments and memorials.
The Knauss Fellowship is not yet halfway over, and Ferguson has already attended an international conference, participated in hearings on Capitol Hill and developed an agency newsletter. She is making huge strides toward a career in community engagement, where she hopes to use her national perspective to protect both animal species and stakeholders through collaborative research.