Gazebo Gazette

With the goal of making the field of marine sciences more inclusive, the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF) – in collaboration with a diverse group of six universities and other partner organizations – has been awarded a four-year, $2 million grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

CERF serves as the lead organization for the award titled, “C-COAST: Changing the Culture of our Occupations to Achieve Systemic Transformation.” In addition to CERF, the award institutions are: The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), The University of the Virgin Islands, The University of Central Florida, and California State University, Long Beach. Partner institutions who will collaborate on the project include the University of San Diego and New Jersey City University.

Coastal communities have always relied heavily on their environment for cultural, economic, and resource needs. These communities tend to be diverse, while the people who study them historically are not. This mismatch diminishes the quality of science and management provided and impacts the ability for science to serve the needs of coastal communities. Recruiting and retaining a more diverse coastal and estuarine workforce is a focus of this work.

Professional societies like CERF can play an important role in leading culture change within STEM disciplines by establishing and reinforcing norms and practices that advance greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

“We recognize that it is not enough to recruit students from marginalized backgrounds to coastal and estuarine science and management; it is critical that we first change the culture of CERF and our disciplines to be more safe and welcoming if we want to retain these students,” said CERF President Dr. Leila Hamdan, Associate Vice President for Research, USM Coastal Operations. “By focusing on developing leaders and empowering them to effect culture change, we hope we can make a bigger impact.”

Hamdan points out that the award is part of a new NSF program, “Leading Culture Change Through Professional Societies of Biology (BIO-LEAPS).” The program aims to advance DEI in the biological sciences broadly by leveraging the leadership, broad reach, and unique ability of professional societies to create culture change.

“My role on this project is developing a new Inclusive Leadership Program to engage and empower leaders in coastal and marine science who can ignite and sustain a change,” said Hamdan. “By engaging leaders at various stages of their career, current leaders can learn to make current practices at their institutions more equitable, and future leaders can acquire skills that will help them advance and succeed in their careers.”

C-COAST will also expand on an existing CERF program: Rising TIDES (Toward an Inclusive, Diverse and Enriched Society). This program brings students to the CERF conference and provides full financial support, mentorship, and professional development, along with the full suite of conference offerings. With this new grant, CERF will be able to expand this to a 16-month program to allow students to attend three in-person meetings – CERF, a regional CERF Affiliate Society meeting, and the Restore America’s Estuaries Summit – and also receive virtual training and mentorship in between.

“The most rewarding and fun part of my job is working with the next generation of coastal and estuarine science and management professionals; the students that I have interacted with through Rising TIDES are continuously inspiring me with their talent and dedication to advancing the field and making it more diverse, inclusive, and equitable,” said CERF Executive Director Susan Park.

Kailani Acosta, a Ph.D. student at Columbia University in New York, participated in the Rising TIDES program and now serves as a CERF Governing Board member. She said the benefits derived from her experience in the program are immeasurable.

“As a graduate student, being a part of Rising TIDES allowed me to get everything I could out of being a part of CERF: I met incredible people, had great mentorship, attended conferences, and learned a lot,” said Acosta. “Rising TIDES has broadened my scientific path and given me access to so many new opportunities. The program has taught me how to be a better mentor, helped me reconnect and make new connections in my field, and led me to being on CERF’s board. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.”

The objectives of the C-COAST project, from short- to long-term, include:

  • Recruit and retain diverse undergraduate and graduate students and provide them professional development, mentorship, and peer networks to support a sense of belonging and identity
  • Educate current leaders on how to be more inclusive and change policies and practices that lead to inequities
  • Increase the leadership skills of and opportunities for future leaders and prepare them to make policies and practices of CERF and their home institutions more inclusive when they are elevated to positions of power.

Hamdan explains that the C-COAST project aligns perfectly with USM’s commitment to a community that that embraces the diversity of people and ideas.

“There is, however, much work to be done to prepare spaces in all scientific disciplines to be welcoming and inclusive,” said Hamdan. “When they are, more individuals and their ideas are valued, and society benefits from innovation that can only emerge from distinct perspectives.”

Added Hamdan: “Our commitment to values must be met with strategic initiatives, and working with CERF, we act as a force multiplier toward lasting culture change to benefit the future of coastal and ocean science.”

Hamdan notes that CERF has been committed to building a more diverse and inclusive society since 2016, and C-COAST is one more step in that direction. The project will directly impact at least 80 participants, but expectations are that the program will create a ripple effect positively impacting home institutions and the coastal communities where CERF members live and work.

The project supports 15 personnel from five minority-serving institutions, two primarily undergraduate Institutions, and three NSF EPSCoR jurisdictions in project leadership roles.

Project team leads include:

USM – Dr. Leila Hamdan

CERF – Dr. Susan Park

UCF – Dr. Kristy Lewis

UVI – Dr. Kristin Wilson Grimes

CSULB — Dr. Christine Whitcraf