Women of Sea Grant are scientists, communicators, educators, outreach specialists and more. In honor of Women’s History Month, get to know one of the many Women of Sea Grant, Renee Collini. Renee is a Coastal Climate Resilience Specialist with Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, Florida Sea Grant and Mississippi State University. She leads the Program for Local Adaptation to Climate Effects: Sea-Level Rise (PLACE: SLR), which spans coastal Mississippi, Alabama and northwest Florida.
What drew you to your current career or field?
I’ve always wanted to make sure that science was getting used, and I am drawn to topics or issues that are not getting a lot of coverage or support. After grad school, I started working on ocean observing – another really important topic that was not getting a lot of funding or attention at the time. In order to generate more buy-in, literally, it required understanding the benefits that the data were bringing to users and how potential funders could also benefit from the data streams continuing. That same ability to meet people where they are and help them see the benefits of different efforts turned out to also be necessary for sea-level rise resilience. When I started in this field in late 2014, there was much less focus on rising seas, and I enjoyed the challenge.
I’ve stuck with this focus for many reasons, but the top ones are that it is challenging, fun, rewarding and there is so much variety in my day to day.
How does your work make a difference in communities?
I think, overall, my work makes a difference by providing confidence in what the data are saying or what we know about changing flood risks. A lot of my work is focused on bringing practical approaches to considering sea-level rise in planning or projects. This can range from hyperlocal work to national efforts. For example, I’m part of a team of Sea Grant and NOAA Office for Coastal Management folks developing an application guide to support the recently released Sea Level Rise Technical Report. This application guide will help to translate some of the science that is now available, support the application of those data in planning generally and provide some guidance on overall approaches for integrating rising seas into broader planning efforts. Locally, my work often looks like Lunch ‘n’ Learns or one-on-one technical support to help municipal staff, engineers and project managers understand and successfully apply sea-level rise data in their work. A big part of this is combining data and research from a variety of projects and efforts so that one practitioner has the relevant data in one place.
How have you reached communities during the pandemic?
We have absolutely had to get creative! For example, we hosted outdoor movie screenings of one of our new films on sea-level rise resilience in the northern Gulf. We got picnic blankets and everything and rented a large screen! We also learned some lessons early on about productive and accessible trainings in an online forum, and we were able to close out 2020 with some very successful trainings on our resource Gulf TREE. We also did phone-based Q&A about projects where we let residents call in and ask questions about a research project we were starting and coupled that with Facebook Live events. This helped us reach a range of demographics from those that were less technology-savvy to very tech savvy. I guess the big take away we learned is that if you really want a turn out in a pandemic, you’ve got to reach out and be available in a lot of different ways.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I enjoy learning different people’s stories. Everyone has a different relationship with the coast and with water. All of these stories make up the fabric of our communities and knowing that I play a small role in helping a broader array of these stories integrate into planning or resilience efforts is very rewarding. I also really enjoy the people – the people I work with are amazing with different skills and perspectives, but one thing they have in common is that they all have so much passion. I think the last thing I would say that I really enjoy about my work is when we help something really cool happen with the science – whether that’s something being designed slightly differently or a planning project integrating sea-level rise with purpose – I mean that’s just so awesome to know I played a part in that.
What gives you hope, either with regard to science, your field, or in general?
It’s changing – when I started eight years ago there were not a lot of us working on this topic and even fewer communities wanting to take concrete action on sea-level rise resilience. Now sometimes it feels like I can’t possibly keep up with all of the requests! This is SO exciting to see! It gives me hope to see all this interest and these efforts spinning up.
What advice would you give to women who are starting out in their careers?
Find your allies and build a network. I think early career professionals sometimes have the impression that networking is about ladder climbing or schmoozing. Networking is about finding other coastal professionals that you enjoy collaborating with because of their skills, expertise and/or ethics. Many of my collaborators have become mentors and close friends. This network of allies has helped me through some of the roughest times of my career and were the key to finding solutions and positive ways forward. They have also been the reason for many of the highlights I have had so far in my career.
I would also say don’t be worried about making a perfect career decision or move – each job provides an opportunity to build to the next step. Even if it’s learning that you REALLY don’t like a job, that is still progress and hopefully, you’re building some skills along the way. Look at me – I loved my job after graduate school as a marine technician, but I had no clue what I wanted to do “when I grew up” and I had no idea how this job would help me advance. But I had fun in my job, I intentionally tried to grow new skills and to build my network and that is what led me to where I am now – and I love my job.
My last piece of advice – ask for feedback. Every presentation I give, every event I help host, every paper I submit – I try to ask someone in the audience I respect or was trying to reach what they thought. Nothing formal or overly daunting (though I also do a LOT of evaluations too), but I just look for any potential ways to do better or reach people more effectively. These informal queries help me to keep improving on how I do what I do and to know if I’m on the right track.