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Veteran Interns Build Their Skills Supporting NOAA’s Habitat Restoration Efforts

September 25, 2023

Three veteran interns share their experiences of working with NOAA on the West Coast.

Three people stand in a river, wearing waders and rubber gloves and holding nets Jodie Robinson, left, electrofishing for brook trout in Carson, Washington.

For years, NOAA and partners have worked to provide opportunities for military veterans to build their skills and work experience contributing to habitat and fisheries restoration projects along the West Coast. Through paid internships and training programs, veteran interns have worked with NOAA to:

  • Support the recovery of threatened salmon and steelhead
  • Learn about the science and policy of habitat restoration and salmon recovery 
  • Network and collaborate with agency, tribal, and nonprofit partners 
  • Build a portfolio of outreach and communications products 
  • Advance their GIS skills

NOAA partners with several groups to recruit, hire, and support veteran interns throughout Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska. In 2023, we have several interns supported by one of these groups, Mt. Adams Institute. This Washington-based non-profit is dedicated to providing diverse internship opportunities for veterans. Their VetsWork program is an 11-month career development internship program for military veterans interested in the natural resources management, public lands, and environment sector. 

Through this collaboration, NOAA is hosting three veteran interns this year:

  • Jodie Robinson in Portland, Oregon
  • Garret Engelke in Seattle, Washington
  • Jeremy Thatcher in Anchorage, Alaska

Below, Jodie, Garret, and Jeremy share their experiences and perspectives from their internships so far.

A person wearing jeans, a white top, and black rubber boots stands next to a river
Jodie Robinson visits a restoration project site on the Clackamas River in Oregon.

Jodie Robinson

What drew you to this internship opportunity?

After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I was having a difficult time looking for a new career where I could make a difference in the natural environment. Many entry-level positions required baseline environmental work experience, which I lacked. Then, this VetsWork internship through Mt. Adams Institute was introduced to me. It gave me the chance to take what I know from my military experience and my studies in geography, and apply it to a position where I would get to work with natural resources. What really set this internship apart from other work positions was the opportunity to interact and work with experts from different scientific specialties, and giving me just shy of a year to learn from them and discover what I’m great at. 

What projects have you been involved in during your internship?

Being based in Portland, I’ve primarily worked on outreach about restoration in Portland Harbor, a Superfund site along the Willamette River. My favorite project so far has been creating a story map that highlights the different restoration project activities that the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council has coordinated. It’s giving me the opportunity to use and further my GIS skills, while also using some creativity in telling the story behind Portland Harbor. This is the first time I have delved deeply into learning about what a Natural Resource Damage Assessment is after an environmental contamination occurs, and hope I’ll continue to find work with this process in restoration. 

Some of my time is also spent working on a team actively highlighting the importance of the Willamette River Basin to Chinook salmon and steelhead populations. I’ve really enjoyed the field opportunities—going on site visits, having conversations and collaborating with project partners. Being able to see the restoration work and hear the background stories firsthand has given me so much fulfillment. On one occasion, I was even able to make contacts and volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doing fish surveys. It was an entirely brand new experience for me, and really eye-opening to some of the challenges that endangered species face.

What have you learned from your internship experience? 

This position has given me a lot of insight on the technical side of restoration, the amount of work it takes to assist restoration project partners, and the time it takes to gather, synthesize, and share scientific information with the public. I also learned that even without a biological background that many of my mentors here have, I’m still able to support restoration work in a technical capacity with my studies and experience in geography and GIS, and with my inter-agency logistics experience from the military. 

What advice would you have for other veterans interested in an internship with NOAA Fisheries?

Like most internships and jobs, it is what you make it to be. My position in Portland isn’t being actively out in the field, and it requires a lot of independent work contributing to ongoing projects. This also meant more opportunity to explore and try new things that I might not be able to do as a permanent employee. I was able to incorporate my interests in photography, fit in a week of volunteering at NOAA’s science camp, and go on overnight site visits. It helped to initiate these opportunities by reaching out to my mentors and even other interns to see what they were working on. Everyone was more than eager to share their projects and get me out in the field. If your plate isn’t full already, fill it up with all this internship has to offer! 

In the foreground, a person wearing a black hoodie, red life jacket, and red rubber gloves stands on a ship and pulls on a rope. Two additional people are seen in the background, also wearing red life jackets.
Garret Engelke pulls in a surface trawling net on the Puget Sound with NOAA scientists Stu Munsch (left), Correigh Greene (right), and Anna Kagley (photographer).

Garret Engelke

What drew you to this internship opportunity?

I was transitioning out of my military career and into a career in natural resources. This was a logical first step: An Americorps program that connects veterans with federal and state agencies involved in conservation. I have a keen interest in fisheries restoration with my background in water resource engineering, and a desire to work with threatened and endangered species. I thought this internship would expose me to high-level federal work and help me network with conservation professionals, and I was not disappointed. 

What projects have you been involved in during your internship?

A person wearing a patterned button up shirt and black sunglasses stands in front of a reservoir
Garret Engelke learns about the fish passage conditions at a dam in eastern Washington.

Much of my work involves giving technical assistance to project proponents on the designs of their fish passage projects. These culvert barrier replacement projects are all over Washington and Oregon. I ensure they meet NOAA Fisheries guidelines and that they are climate-resilient solutions to fish passage. I also engage in fieldwork that includes beach seining, fyke netting, and surface trawling in the Puget Sound and nearby estuaries with the Tulalip Tribes and the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

What have you learned from your internship experience? 

I’ve learned much about the Puget Sound ecosystem and the purpose and strategy for habitat restoration. I’ve gained partner coordination and project management experience. I’ve also become familiar with federal, tribal, state, local, and nonprofit organizations and the roles they play in restoration projects. 

What advice would you have for other veterans interested in an internship with NOAA Fisheries?

There is a variety of work you can do with NOAA Fisheries. NOAA is great about incorporating veterans in many of their line offices. Interns with the same title and in the same line office but in different geographies can be involved in very different work. Explore the options, get into contact with employees from the line offices, and ask if you can get in touch with former veteran interns to see what positions align best with your priorities and ambitions. 

Two people sit on the snow along a creek. They are both looking at a piece of scientific equipment. One is wearing a blue winter jacket and knitted beanie, and the other is wearing a red and blue winter jacket and white baseball cap.
Jeremy Thatcher (right) and Chickaloon Traditional Council Environmental Program Manager Kendra Zamzow (left) take water quality measurements on Wolverine Creek, Alaska.

Jeremy Thatcher

What drew you to this internship opportunity?

Growing up immersed in nature and pursuing a degree in environmental studies has instilled in me the knowledge and appreciation for conservation of our natural resources. Throughout my early career, it has been my hope to get a taste for as many different perspectives as I can while searching for the organization and focus that I would like to devote the bulk of my career to. In my position preceding this internship, I gained experience in conservation and protection of our forests. Living in California, I learned about the effects of wildfires on forest ecology and how they influence the way we develop and maintain our utilities within the encroaching urban sprawl. 

Feeling satisfied with my experience in that job, I began to seek out opportunities to work in the field of marine ecology and conservation. Upon discovery of this position, I knew I had to apply. The fact that the position was created for veterans gave me the confidence I had a good chance of getting it. The cherry on top was the opportunity to explore my interests while immersed in the breathtakingly dramatic environment of Alaska. 

What projects have you been involved in during your internship?

A person stands near a lake holding a net and other equipment to survey fish
Jeremy Thatcher at Wrong Way Lake near Cordova, Alaska, carrying gear for a juvenile coho salmon survey.

Variety has been the theme of my year so far and I couldn’t be happier. I have had the opportunity to work with so many people across multiple organizations and partnerships in support of the Alaska region’s conservation effort. 

The primary focus of my internship falls within the scope of the NOAA Restoration Center. During my first couple of weeks, I familiarized myself with the current federal funding opportunities for fish passage and coastal habitat restoration. The Chickaloon Village Traditional Council is one of the successful applicants for a tribal-specific fish passage grant. They are using the funds to remove and replace multiple culverts in a local stream that act as barriers to fish migration. I have had the privilege of working with them in the planning and capacity building stage as they prepare for design and implementation. I have assisted in water quality surveys and salmon abundance surveys, and joined trainings focused on providing CVTC and partners the ecologic and geologic expertise to oversee the restoration. I am eager for the construction of the new culverts and to witness the transformation of the stream back to its historical form. 

I have also had the opportunity to assist in the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program, in coordination with NOAA Alaska Region’s Protected Resources Division. The purpose of this citizen science-based program is to get the community involved in recording data on beluga sightings around Cook Inlet where the species is endangered. This past spring, I spent a couple of hours every few days monitoring with someone who had experience in spotting belugas and gauging the abundance and life stages of the pods passing by. The fall season has just begun, and my role is now flipped as I will go out and help others learn the monitoring intricacies that I now know. NOAA is also hosting a large event in late September called Belugas Count! that promotes the monitoring program and encourages people to get out to see these whales, become educated on the human influences that cause them to be endangered, and hopefully become stewards in the community for their protection. 

Other efforts I’ve had the opportunity to work on include:

  • Taking part in a survey of juvenile coho salmon in a lake in Cordova, Alaska. I spent a week working with the U.S. Forest Service’s aquatics team out of the Cordova Ranger District office. This was an amazing experience because of the importance of the work as well as it being my first time handling live salmon. It was also a great way to put all I had learned in previous months of office work towards application.
  • Working closely with the Mat-Su Salmon Fish Habitat Partnership, which works with many organizations, tribes, and citizens in the Mat-Su borough of Southcentral Alaska to promote and facilitate the well-being of fish habitat in the region. Among countless other things, they plan outreach events to educate the public about current risks to the health of the local environment, as well as a science symposium for professionals in the field of natural resources management. My participation has given me a clear understanding of all the processes that go into organizing and hosting these community-wide gatherings. 
  • Participating in a pelagic trawl survey targeting Alaska pollock on the Oscar Dyson, a NOAA marine research vessel—where I am currently sitting in my stateroom. Out of Kodiak, Alaska, we will be traveling south through the Shelikof Strait, zig-zagging our way down towards the Aleutian Islands. On our way down, we will be stopping at predetermined stations to put trawl nets in the water and survey what we pull up. My role includes sorting the fish by species and counting the number of individuals in the separated groups. We will be out at sea for a total of 2 weeks and will be working 12-hour shifts to make sure time is spent as efficiently as possible. It will be a tiring 2 weeks for sure, but an experience of a lifetime nonetheless. 

These experiences do not highlight all the little things I have learned and accomplished on a daily basis in this internship. The amount of opportunities and support that I have been provided through NOAA has far exceeded my expectations. I know this wealth of experiences will help me decide how I want to continue my career and give me an advantage over the competition. 

What have you learned from your internship experience? 

It's hard to be brief when expressing all that I have learned in my internship, not to mention all the learning I still have to do. The thing that stands out to me the most, which I can attribute to the variety of work that I’ve done, is the breadth of ways you can become involved in the field of natural resource management. I have seen the federal perspective, that of the state, non-profit organization, tribal entity, local partnerships, private contractor, volunteer, and the list goes on. Although I am motivated to continue my career with a federal agency such as NOAA, it has been a pleasure to see the attention that is put on conservation and preservation on all scales, through every angle, because the environment is the one thing that connects us all. 

What advice would you have for other veterans interested in an internship with NOAA Fisheries?

For other veterans interested in applying for a similar internship with NOAA Fisheries, I would encourage you to release any inhibitions you may have. If you are passionate about the environment and understand the importance of the work that agencies such as NOAA do to allow everyone to enjoy it, you will find your place in the effort. Even if not with NOAA, you will be pointed in the right direction. 

If you are accepted into a position, be prepared to learn. You’ll be exposed to a ton of information and know that you can use it to seek out as many opportunities and connections as are out there. 

Lastly, take advantage of your time. It is rare to have as many resources at your fingertips as you do while interning with NOAA. Having a supervisor to help you navigate is invaluable.

On that note, I would like to thank NOAA Fisheries and my supervisor Erika Ammann for all the support and for a very successful year with plenty of work left to do. I can’t wait to see what is next!

Last updated by Office of Habitat Conservation on November 20, 2023