Rip Current Awareness Week: Spotlight on Michigan Sea Grant Communication Specialist Elizabeth LaPorte
Michigan Sea Grant Communications and Education Services Director
Credit: Michigan Sea Grant
Elizabeth LaPorte works with colleagues at U-M and MSU to ensure the alignment of Sea Grant’s activities with the mission of the National Sea Grant College Program and the needs of Michigan’s stakeholders. She identifies opportunities to leverage research through public outreach and education. LaPorte has led state and regional efforts to successfully secure more than $4.6M in partnership with others to conduct programs. See her full bio.
It’s Rip Current Awareness Week, what is one thing everyone needs to know about rip currents?
It’s hard to focus on one thing about rip currents, so I’ll limit myself to two:
1. Don’t panic – swim at an angle out of the current. Swimmers can conserve energy by alternating swimming and floating.
2. Stay away from piers and within in designated swimming areas. Rip currents are often near structures and can prevent a swimmer from getting safely back to shore. In the Great Lakes region, many young men have jumped off piers and become a fatality.
What is something cool you learned while working on promoting rip current awareness?
The interesting part for me is working with experts, from DNR Water Safety and the NWS — to local public park managers that spend a lot of time with the public. I learned that we can be more targeted with developing prevention messages about water safety tips, and checking the NWS forecasts; crafting messages for people at the beach, like explaining what the red flags mean; and providing information about what to do if caught in a dangerous current. It’s critical to stay calm, swim at an angle out of the current and follow the best path to safety.
We don’t want to discourage people from going to the shore. Coastal beaches are beautiful places to be and can be a lot of fun. They are also very dynamic and powerful. Respecting that power and knowing what to do in an emergency is important.
For instance, a key message for parents is to take the “Water Watcher” Pledge: Carefully, watch your children at all times, near or in the water. Every child should wear a life jacket. It’s so easy for a child to be swept off the beach, from breaking waves and be carried away from the shore by a rip current. Putting a life jacket on children is one of the easiest safety measures you can take.
What is the biggest challenge you face at your job?
Not enough hours in the day. There is always more work to do, more work that I want to do.
Safety Buoys at the Beach
Credit: Michigan Sea Grant
What is your favorite part about being a communication specialist at Sea Grant?
Good communication can help save lives. Good collaboration can help save more lives. Also, I get to go to some of the most beautiful places on earth, some of which are right here in Michigan.
What part of your job did you least expect to be doing?
Grant writing to supplement our NOAA-Sea Grant funding. Special grants to support dangerous currents public outreach efforts has allowed us to forge new partnerships, strengthen existing ones, and pay for new water safety and emergency rescue equipment. New ring buoys, life jackets for youth and other equipment will be available along Lake Michigan beaches this summer. We are very fortunate to have support from state and federal government to do this work. I’m very pleased that we just received news about a new grant to take what we learned about dangerous currents in Michigan and apply this to other states in the region.
How did you get involved with Sea Grant? When did you join Sea Grant?
I have been with Michigan Sea Grant for 13 years and at the University of Michigan for 26 years. I grew up in the Saginaw Bay area and have always been interested in the Great Lakes. It just took me a while to get to my perfect job.
What drove you to work in science communications? When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science communications?
My first job at the university involved working with research scientists at the UM Medical Center and Medical School. I helped communicate information about the first treatment regimen for HIV-AIDS. Scientists paired with communications specialists make a dynamic duo, and are able to tease out the important findings, and recommendations to answer the question: why does this matter? It’s not always easy to do this. We joke in our office about how lake sturgeon (a prehistoric native fish) is the “puppy” for the media and the public. Whenever we show photos of lake sturgeon, lots of people are interested. I wish it were that easy for every topic.
What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science communication?
There are so many aspects to science communication, including web design, illustration, photography, writing, editing and media outreach. My advice is to explore your strengths, keep up with professional development (workshops), and surround yourself with interesting people. Making meaningful connections with people is still very important – this is very difficult to do via email or blogs. So go to events, give presentations and explore partnerships.
And how about a personal favorite book?
I recently read the biography of Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and writer. She was a great communicator and incredible advocate for natural resources. She recognized the importance of relevant images paired with science-based narrative. I found it inspiring.
Do you have an outside hobby?
I love to hike, take photos and walk by the water – it’s my favorite place to be.
What surprised you most about working at Sea Grant?
I am pleasantly surprised by the number of incredibly dedicated people, in Washington DC, in every coastal state, and in many different fields of study. The diversity of people and projects is interesting.
Meet other people in the Sea Grant Network that help raise awareness of Rip Currents:
California Sea Grant funded researcher: Bob Guza, PhD
North Carolina Sea Grant Extension Specialist: Spencer Rogers
Texas Sea Grant funded researcher: Chris Houser, PhD