Building a Diverse Workforce to Meet the Challenges of Alaska’s Changing Marine Environment

September 11, 2019

NOAA Fisheries’ Partnership for Education Program is training a new generation of marine scientists and managers in Alaska.

Partnership for Education Program Alaska students in the field.

Partnership for Education Program Alaska students in the field.

This summer NOAA Fisheries, in partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, successfully launched the new Partnership for Education Program Alaska (PEP AK). The goal of the program is to build a more diverse, inclusive, and effective marine resource workforce in Alaska.  

PEP AK is modeled after a similar program in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It provides education in academic and Indigenous knowledge, as well as hands-on experience for undergraduate students entering marine-related professions. 

And, for student Kara Chuang, it was “one of the best experiences of my life.”

Chuang was one of five students who participated in the inaugural PEP AK this summer. In the classroom and in the field the students learned about:

  • Arctic change.
  • Climatology.
  • Oceanography.
  • Marine resource management, policy, and law.
  • Alaska Native perspectives.

Excursions included a trip to the University of Alaska’s Toolik Research station on the North Slope.

“The cohort experience is particularly important for these students. Throughout the program, students support each other, learn from each other, and are a resource for each other,” noted program coordinator Sorina Stalla of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. 

Following their coursework, students applied their new knowledge during 8-week internships at NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Regional Office and Auke Bay Laboratories in Juneau. Each student worked on a special project, including:

  • Humpback whale diet and feeding.
  • Intertidal zone dynamics.
  • Migration timing of steelhead, dolly varden, and coho salmon.
  • Creating an Ocean Guardian School Program curriculum for Alaska schools.
  • Evaluating usage of the coastal mapping system, ShoreZone.
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PEP AK Student Joseph Monsef of Juneau, Alaska, presents results of his research on the coastal mapping system, ShoreZone.

“This research experience is highly valuable to me. It is very rare for somebody in their second year of college to have this kind of opportunity,” said Annie Masterman, a student from Bethel, Alaska, who worked on the humpback whale study. “I hope to continue with the research and make many connections in this field.” 

“One of our goals is to create a more direct connection between education and practical work experience,” said program leader Kaja Brix, Arctic Program Director for NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region. “By connecting students to NOAA internships, PEP AK creates strong and more direct pathways to marine resource science and management careers.”

Being immersed in an office environment allows students to make connections with staff at all levels of their careers. They can learn about other people's pathways into the agency. “These kinds of conversations can be instrumental for students preparing to transition into the workforce and trying to figure out their next steps,” said Stalla.  

PEP AK focuses especially on integrating local Alaska Native and rural undergraduate students into science and resource management. The program recruits Alaskan students through partnerships with Alaska Native and rural Alaskan institutions, as well as the University of Alaska. 

Through these connections, PEP AK fulfills an important mandate of the Magnuson Stevens Act to establish a marine education and training pilot program for Native communities. 

PEP AK  also addresses a current national education priority. “STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] education and diversity is a major focus of the White House STEM strategy, and Arctic STEM is a new initiative by the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee,” said Brix. “The work being done through PEP AK  is a highlight of that effort.”

Most importantly, the program is preparing the next generation of marine scientists and managers to meet the challenges of a changing Alaska. The Arctic is warming faster than any other region. Alaska is at the front line of climate change, melting sea ice, and ecosystem shifts.  These changes affect the whole world—and, in significant ways, the people of Alaska.  

“The new generation of professionals will need to integrate scientific disciplines to understand the complex intersections of our emerging needs in a changing Alaska. That kind of multidisciplinary approach will be key to understanding how climate change affects our fisheries,” said Brix. “That is precisely what these students are being trained for.”

Last updated by Alaska Fisheries Science Center on September 17, 2019