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Meet Lisa Hiruki-Raring: Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center

May 18, 2021

Lisa Hiruki-Raring works to translate the research that NOAA Fisheries scientists do into educational activities or resources.

Photo of Lisa Hiruki-Raring talking with a visitor at a NOAA Fisheries information table. Discussing NOAA educational resources at the Pacific Northwest Teacher at Sea Alumni workshop. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

What is your key responsibility?  

I translate the research that our scientists do into educational activities or resources. I develop and foster partnerships between the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and other agencies and organizations. I believe education helps to strengthen relationships between communities and our scientists. It is a way to give back to the communities where we do research by sharing and exchanging information with students, families, and community members. We focus on all levels of education, from K-12 to undergraduate internships to graduate fellowship opportunities. We also do informal education opportunities to reach the general public.

What is your educational background?

I grew up and went to school  in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Computing Science, Scientific Applications, from the University of Alberta. I had initially wanted to study biology or zoology, but somehow got the idea that there weren’t many jobs in biology. So I studied computers instead, with a minor in biology/zoology. As an undergraduate, I volunteered at an international mammalogy conference held at my university. At the conference I met Dr. Ian Stirling, a polar bear biologist. I got the opportunity to work in his lab as a volunteer and later as a student technician.

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Photo of Lisa Hiruki-Raring on a steep slope, above the ocean, viewing chinstrap penguins.
While studying Antarctic fur seals in 1994-95, Lisa also helped with research on chinstrap penguins. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

He connected me with the Hawaiian monk seal research program at the NOAA Fisheries lab in Honolulu. That inspired me to pursue a Master’s degree in zoology, studying injuries in Hawaiian monk seals. I worked for the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Honolulu for a few years, studying population dynamics of Hawaiian monk seals. Then I moved to Seattle to work in the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory. First I worked on Antarctic fur seals, and later on harbor seals and ice-associated seals in Alaska. Finally, I moved into education and outreach coordination.

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Photo of Lisa Hiruki-Raring marking a Hawaiian monk seal on the beach.
Marking a Hawaiian monk seal with an identifying number. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

What inspired you to pursue a career in marine science and education?

I didn’t start out being interested in marine science. I was interested in animals in general (mostly mammals and particularly marsupials). I could easily have gone on to study terrestrial mammals. Meeting Dr.  Stirling and working in his lab showed me what research on polar bear and arctic seal ecology looked like, and I was hooked. Working on Hawaiian monk seals provided the added motivation of working on an endangered species. 

My interest in education and reaching out to students who might not have access to marine science education was sparked after I moved to Seattle and gave occasional classroom talks. In one inner-city class, a girl said that she didn’t know women could be scientists. I was stunned to hear that, and realized the importance of being a role model and engaging students in science. I started working with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center Diversity Panel to reach out to kids in public schools with diverse communities. I also developed materials for our scientists to take out to classrooms. 

Ever since then, I’ve been focused on bringing NOAA science to schools and the public, and engaging diverse communities. With Washington Sea Grant, I coordinate NOAA Science Camp. It’s a summer program in Seattle for middle and high school students where participants learn about NOAA science and careers through hands-on activities. We’re now in our 19th year! I’ve also been involved at the national level through the NOAA Education Council and NOAA Fisheries Education Council. These days I am focused on reaching out to Alaska communities and schools through a webinar series, NOAA Live! Alaska, which features our scientists and partners. I think the common thread that I enjoy in all of these activities is the excitement I see from the kids (big and small) when they are learning about cool science!

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Photo of Lisa Hiruki-Raring teaching students in a class room with a northern fur seal plush toy..
Discussing northern fur seal ecology with students at St. Paul School in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

What advice would you have for today’s youth interested in a federal government career? 

Explore many different things to find out what you are interested in. There are many careers out there and you never know what will spark your passion. One of the consistent things we hear is “I never knew you could do (fill in the blank) for a job!” Take advantage of job shadows, open houses, and opportunities to talk with people in the field that you are interested in. There are also school projects and internships where you can get school credit or a paid position and learn more about different government agencies and positions. Explore student programs and government websites for opportunities. If you make a good impression as a student intern, you make connections with people who can help introduce you to more opportunities as you progress in your career. Finally, be patient and persistent, and work hard. But don’t forget to look around, enjoy what you are doing and take time to observe the little things! Life is short, and it’s important to remember to have a good balance of work and outside activities.

What does Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you?

It is an opportunity to reflect back on the history, achievements, and contributions of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in the United States. As a Japanese American, I think back on history from the first Japanese fisherman to come to the United States in 1843, to vibrant Japanese American communities celebrating Obon festivals. Those are community festivals to celebrate culture and honor ancestors, across the nation each summer. 

“Asian American” is such a large grouping of cultures—people having origins in the far East, southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent. The Pacific Islands include the large areas of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia. It’s hard to fit all of these cultures under one umbrella term. I find that I learn more every year about different cultures and histories within the Asian American and Pacific Islander groups. 

This year in particular brings more awareness and meaning to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, given the recent violence aimed at Asian Americans and increased harassment in the past year during the pandemic. At the same time, we are celebrating the heritage of our Vice President, Kamala Harris. Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month is a celebration that all Americans can participate in by exploring the diversity of these cultures and learning about their contributions and accomplishments.

Is there a book, quote, or person that influenced you to be the person that you are today? 

There are many people who have guided me through various parts of my life. Both teachers and peer mentors have helped me both professionally and with life skills. My parents have been role models in science and community. My father, a plant pathologist, had a very diverse cohort of graduate students and worked in collaboration with many scientists across the globe. My mother, a Japanese language teacher, fostered inclusivity and reaching out to community. She helped new immigrants and mentored international exchange students. Ian Stirling and many workplace mentors also shaped my approach to science and work-life balance.  

Books have presented ideas and influences as well. I have always been an avid reader. As a kid, I always liked watching nature shows and reading about animals. One of my favorite authors was Gerald Durrell, who founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo. His books inspired me because he opened the door to the diversity of animals in the world, and because he was so dedicated to wildlife conservation and the protection of endangered species. As I grew older I enjoyed reading Stephen Jay Gould. I wish I had had more books with Asian American protagonists when I was growing up. Obasan by Joy Kogawa was a strong influence for me. These days, I appreciate authors like Grace Lin, Cynthia Kadohata, Lisa Yee, and Gene Luen Yang, who are writing the books that I would have loved to read when I was young.

Photo of Lisa Hiruki-Raring holding the skull bones of a marine mammal and talking with a young girl.
Lisa Hiruki-Raring giving a tour of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s marine mammal research bone collection. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

What does being a career civil servant mean to you?

I have worked for government agencies in both Canada and the United States and in both places I have found people dedicated to the work they do. I’ve worked at NOAA for more than 25 years and have met people across the country who believe strongly in the work of the agency and the importance of its mission. They are so passionate about their work. I feel fortunate to work with such motivated, inspiring people.