Location: Carlsbad, CA
One thing Carolyn could count on growing up was that her older brothers (one of whom is my husband, David) would tease her, and the other was that her family would head down to Ocean City, Maryland each summer for their annual beach vacation. It was there that Carolyn learned to love the ocean. As she got older, she took up boogie boarding and surfing and relished being on the water. She met her husband when she joined his sailing team on the Chesapeake Bay. She still enjoys the ocean and nature, now on the other side of the country, and she has devoted her career to saving it.
Carolyn graduated from the University of Maryland in 1995 with a degree in Natural Resources Management. She started college with a firm belief that, as she puts it, “we could live in a way that wouldn’t be impactful to the environment around us.” She was advised to pursue a career in civil engineering but one semester of doing integrative calculus convinced her that was not the right path for her. Environmental Studies was not yet a major and career path the way it is now, so Carolyn’s degree combined studies in biology, government, and economics to carve out solutions to threats to the environment.
After graduating from college, she worked the Chesapeake Bay Program and then at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Both organizations focused on improving water quality and habitats of the Bay. Carolyn had worked in college doing GIS computer mapping which, she says, made her “very employable.” After a few years, however, Carolyn wanted to “get out of the computer lab and into the field.” She also wanted to do her own research and not simply plot someone else’s on a computer.
Knowing she wanted to study sea grass and the important role it plays in the habitat for fish and as a way of cleaning water, she headed to San Diego State University in 1998 for graduate school. “I wanted to be at a place where I could see the sea grass,” Carolyn says, “and where I could surf every day.” Her theses focused on trying to find the underlying cause for a change in the distribution of two different species of sea grass that occurred during the 1997-98 El Nino. “This subject provides insight on what is going to happen as a result of climate change because both El Nino and climate change in Southern California are associated with warmer waters and higher sea levels,” Carolyn says.
Carolyn and her husband, Nick, who is also from Maryland, had not planned on staying in California. But whenever they returned to Maryland for weddings and holidays, they were faced with the cold of winter or the mosquitos and heat of summer. “We went back during the worst times of the year,” Carolyn says. “And here we had surfing.” So they decided to stay, a decision that was cemented with Carolyn’s post-graduate job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the birth of her two children.
Her first job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was as an enforcer of the regulations administering The Endangered Species Act and The Clean Water Act. Carolyn would review and provide input on proposed development projects and how they would manage or avoid environmental impact. She has since switched to serving as the Coastal Program Coordinator, a job that entails providing funding (cooperative agreements or grants) and technical assistance to partners to complete voluntary conservation projects. “I used to have a stick,” Carolyn says, “and now I have a carrot. It is super satisfying.” Instead of primarily enforcing laws, she is now working with partners “who want to do things to protect and restore the environment.”
She also loves the fact that she has made good on her wish to get out from behind a desk and computer. Each week is different and can entail being out in the field alongside her program partners doing physical labor like planting environmentally-friendly plants to doing biological surveys and measurements. “I also talk on the phone a lot and attend a lot of meetings,” Carolyn says, “but it is mixed up with field work. Last week I was snorkeling!”
Carolyn loves that her office can be in nature. She feels she is doing what she was meant to be doing with her life. It is not necessarily what she thought she would do, but the job has evolved to something that gives her both great satisfaction and tremendous pride. Her work on the South San Diego Bay Restoration Project was particularly satisfying because “we had a good budget and were able to restore a ton of habitat.” Projects and the recovery of habitat can take many years, and Carolyn loves to survey the dramatic transition and know that she was a part of them. When her children were younger, she explained her job by telling them that she “makes homes for the plants and animals that are supposed to be here.” That explanation still pretty much sums it up, and Carolyn wouldn’t have it any other way. “I am proud of what I do,” she says. And the fact that she sometimes gets to don a wetsuit? That’s just icing on the cake.