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NOAA’s EPP Scholarship Program: “Changing the Face” of NOAA Science

They come, these select undergraduate and graduate science majors, with only the vaguest impression of just what NOAA is.

May 2001: Research cruise aboard NOAA’s Albatross IV. Scientific crew washing zooplankton out of the nets and into buckets

May 2001: Research cruise aboard NOAA’s Albatross IV. Scientific crew washing zooplankton out of the nets and into buckets

And with even less insight into what that long-named federal agency and its numerous component departments and agencies actually do.

In reality, they come, most of them at least, with only scant impressions of just how it is that their own interest in science might actually jibe – or not jibe – with NOAA’s day-to-day work.

But they leave not so long afterwards – if they indeed leave rather than becoming NOAA employees – as marine scientists, as aquatic biologists, as atmospheric chemists. And, equally important, they leave as de facto ambassadors for NOAA and its work. With real-world and practical workaday experiences and insights.

Through NOAA’s four-year-old Educational Partnership Program (EPP), NCCOS and other NOAA offices seek to increase the number of students from minority-serving institutions trained in sciences directly related to NOAA’s missions.

It’s no secret that the scientific community overall – including the NOAA and NCCOS scientific communities – simply doesn’t “look like” the broad and increasingly diverse American public overall.

That’s a reality the EPP initiative is trying to address. With an aging work force similar to those of many other federal agencies that got their start in the early and mid-1970s, NOAA considers EPP an important element comprehensive succession planning activities.

“Our scientists need to look more like the nation than we currently do,” says EPP Director Jacqueline Rousseau, who has headed the effort since it was started in 2001. She points out that, base on most recent U.S. Census data, one-quarter of the U.S. population is projected to be Hispanic-Americans by 2050. Pointing to the roughly one-dozen African Americans who earn a physical science Ph.D. in the U.S. each year, she expresses confidence that her program “will change the face of Ph.D. candidates” nationally, and ultimately help change the face of NOAA scientists too.

Rousseau speaks with a contagious enthusiasm about her program, warmly calling EPP participants “our kids,” although she acknowledges that one of the program’s continuing challenges is to sell itself widely throughout all of NOAA itself.

“I’d like to make a broader cross section of NOAA understand the opportunities available at these minority serving institutions,” Rousseau says.

“Our intent is not to hire everyone we train,” Rousseau insists, nonetheless acknowledging that she hopes NOAA will be among their “first choice of employers.” But at the same time her goal clearly is to have NOAA managers nationwide increasingly recognize minority serving institutions and their graduates as a rich and somewhat untapped source of well qualified scientists. (MSIs consist of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Service Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Native Alaskan and Hawaiian Serving Institutions.)

May 2001: Research cruise aboard NOAA’s Albatross IV. Scientific crew washing zooplankton out of the nets and into buckets

May 2001: Research cruise aboard NOAA’s Albatross IV. Scientific crew washing zooplankton out of the nets and into buckets

Through a strictly competitive financial assistance program, EPP works with 21 minority serving academic institutions to support collaborative research and training of students in NOAA-related sciences. Its managers explain that EPP competes directly with some of the nation’s leading scientific universities and institutions for the most sought-after students and graduates of those minority serving institutions. A primary emphasis of the program is to help those academic institutions build capacity in NOAA-related sciences, frequently by relating their ongoing science programs to the sweeping scope of NOAA scientific activities.

Students chosen to participate in EPP spend 640 hours working at various NOAA laboratories and facilities, attending national programs and forums, and working on research cruises along veteran NOAA and NCCOS scientists.

If you think this experience is just one more of those internships in which students are assigned to a remote desk in a distant corner, told to “read up,” and practically forgotten, think again: EPP participants praise the experience they’ve gained from practically daily contact with veteran agency scientists and relish the hands-on opportunities they’ve been given to participate fully in ongoing science and research efforts.

In addition to supporting capacity development at participating institutions, one-quarter of EPP funding to each institution goes directly to supporting those students in their onsite work. In roughly half the cases, Rousseau says, the participating EPP student is the first in his or her family to attend college.

EPP operates through four separate but related programs:

  • The Cooperative Science Centers – four centers at minority serving institutions advance scientific research and offer distance learning programs to students nationwide;
  • The Environmental Entrepreneurship Program – institutions use these funds for program development, attracting new students, and training faculty to address environmental issues in resource-depleted areas;
  • The Graduate Science Program – financial support for exceptional minority students helps them pursue advanced degrees in the environmental sciences.
  • The Undergraduate Scholarship Program – sophomores and juniors majoring in sciences at minority serving institutions get tuition assistance and 10-week summer internships.
Erik Davenport preserving zooplankton samples

Erik Davenport preserving zooplankton samples

For biologist Erik Davenport, now working for NCCOS’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research (CCFHR), in Beaufort, N.C., an essential value of the EPP experience was the “networking power” that gave him face–to–face access with experienced and respected scientists on a practically daily basis.

“While the college course work and thesis research has been important for fundamental understanding,” Davenport says, “I have experienced invaluable intellectual and personal growth through general conversation and work-related interactions with NOAA scientists.”

Davenport, who earned his masters degree in biology from Morgan State University, in Maryland, currently is working on NCCOS projects with the Beaufort laboratory’s Forecasting and Related Research (FARR) team. In one project, he’s involved with examining the ecological importance of the Charleston, S.C., Gyre as an essential habitat for fishes, and in the second he’s helping forecast recovery of the coastal ocean from hurricane impacts.

Adrian Land loading antibiotic resistance plates with bacterial isolates from watershed project

Adrian Land loading antibiotic resistance plates with bacterial isolates from watershed project

Asked if his EPP fellowship amounted to being shoved into a corner cubicle and told to “read up,” Indiana University Ph.D candidate Adrian Land replies emphatically: “It was NOT that!”

“The program director made sure we had legitimate work, and insisted on very involved and detailed weekly work reports” both during his work at NCCOS’s Silver Spring, MD. headquarters and while working in 2004 at NCCOS’s Charleston, S.C., laboratory.

A biology graduate of Alcorn State University, Land now is in a five-year microbiology Ph.D. program at Indiana, in Bloomington, In.. The EPP experience, he says, was particularly helpful in “giving me insights I couldn’t get from undergraduate research alone,” particularly in terms of the levels of effort and concentration involved in doing professional scientific research

“It taught me how to network and make contact with professional scientists,” Land adds. “I never really had known the possibilities of environmental microbiology before I participated with NCCOS in the EPP program.” Land says his experience has broadened his microbiology horizons beyond the purview routinely associated with, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, to include preventive measures associated in dealing with coastal oceans, shellfish harvesting, and recreational uses of coastal oceans.

Reading and scoring antibiotic resistance plates with microdilution viewer

Reading and scoring antibiotic resistance plates with microdilution viewer

“It was such a positive experience for all of us,” Land says of his 10 EPP classmates in the 2003 program, many of whom formed a lasting bond that continues well beyond the actual internship. “We did everything together,” he says, calling the EPP group “extremely diverse.”

“I still try to recruit people for the EPP program, he says, pointing also to the value in “having someone from a federal laboratory stand by you” when applying to science doctoral programs.

For more information on the EPP program, go to http://epp.noaa.gov or call 301-713-9437.

 

 

 

MSIs in the NOAA Educational Partnership Program
Center Lead Institutions Research Partners
Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center (CREST) City College of the City University of New York Lehman College

Bronx Community College

1Hampton University

2University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez

Bowie State University

University of Maryland Baltimore County

3Columbia University

NOAA Center Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS) Howard University 4Jackson State University

University of Texas El Paso

2University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez

Environmental Cooperative Science Center (ECSC) Florida A&M University 5Delaware State University

4Jackson State University

Morgan State University

South Carolina State University

3University of Miami

3University of Nebraska

Living Marine Resources Cooperative Science Center (LMRCSC) University of Maryland Eastern Shore 5Delaware State University

1Hampton University

Savannah State University

3University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute’s Center of Marine Biotechnology

3University of Miami Rosenteil School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences

  1. Partners with CREST and LMRCSC
  2. Partners with CREST and NCAS
  3. Partners with NCAS and ECSC
  4. Partners with ECSC and LMRCSC
  5. Partners with ECSC and LMRCSC

Shorter web link for sharing: http://coastalscience.noaa.gov/news/?p=447

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