May 8, 2019

“Science in Action”

Posted by Sharon Rauch

Career arc: As an undergrad, Wilson studied atmospheric science at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, where she had an opportunity to participate in a research collaboration with Duke University. After graduating and getting a job at NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information (formerly the National Climatic Data Center), she kept in touch with the Principal Investigator from the Duke collaboration and eventually joined her lab for her graduate studies.

Presenting her graduate research in a poster at an AGU meeting, Wilson connected with the person who would become her current mentor at Scripps, where she started out as a postdoctoral scholar and is now in a full-time staff research position as Field Research Manager).

While she says classes and subject matter are important and teach fundamental skills, for her, learning to do “science in action” came from conducting fieldwork, partnering with communities and participating in outreach outside the classroom.

“I got to where I am through first, being interested in weather, and then, through taking advantage of interesting opportunities that came my way to work with new people and projects.”

Motivation: Wilson’s main role is supporting Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO), a project to better inform water management decisions. With a focus on providing reliable, up-to-date data and decision support on water resources, the project speaks to issues near and dear to many stakeholders in the Western United States, especially in California where water availability is a perennial issue.

Community engagement is central to the project, as a wide variety of stakeholders are interested in applying watershed monitoring and forecasting data to improve decision making in a range of contexts. Wilson says it’s been very motivating to see how scientists and water users share the data and use it to shed light on concerns related to water and reservoir management.

“I really think that the success of this project has been from the partnerships that we have with the landowners and local water agencies.”

How I see community science: Wilson says she’s found Scripps to be fertile ground for community-engaged work. Colleagues have been supportive of the need to incorporate more outreach and adjust the project’s approach in order to expand its impact, and the project team has learned from experience the value of doing the up-front work necessary to find common ground among multiple stakeholders.

“Community involvement has been indispensable. Having everyone in the same room, talking about the same thing, and realizing we have the same values is huge. Taking the time at the beginning to have everyone feel heard and have everyone able to come together and realize we have similar objectives—it’s just so much more productive when you have all those people in the same room.”

Looking ahead: While Wilson is in the early stages of her career, she says she’s likely to continue exploring ways to engage communities in research and evidence-based decision making. For others who may be interested in pursuing a similar path, she advises jumping at any opportunity to work outside the classroom. If you’re looking at graduate programs in the sciences, she suggests asking if mentors are supportive of a community engaged approach. If they say yes, ask for specific examples.

“Read a lot, ask questions, solicit feedback from communities, stay connected with mentors and people who inspire you, and always stay curious. Take advantage of interesting opportunities that come your way, even if they weren’t part of your original master plan.”

Anna Wilson, Ph.D., Field Research Manager, Scripps Institution of Oceanography