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Lessons learned: The difference a mentor makes

By: Tiffany Atkinson,
Ohio Sea Grant Knauss Fellow,
Special Assistant to the Assistant Administrator,
NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research


I can’t emphasize enough how incredibly valuable it can be when someone takes you under their wing as a mentor. In my experience, a really great mentor doesn’t just tell someone what they should do with their future, but instead, they challenge us to think in new ways, teach us how to be leaders, and provide support with empathy. The lessons we learn from these relationships can teach us so much about ourselves and the world. 


As an undergraduate at Ohio State University, I was fortunate enough to meet one of the most amazing mentors anyone could have (of course after you, Mom). If my life were a movie, my first conversation with Dr. Suzanne Gray would have been the scene where music started playing and light started shining down on her from the sky. She was so approachable and enthusiastic to have me come aboard to do research in her lab. We had a thought-provoking brainstorming session about how my interests in water quality could fit into her research about human impacts on fish physiology and behavior. From that day forward, we decided that I would study water quality from a fish’s perspective. 


I was lucky enough to conduct my master’s research on a small fish species in rural Uganda, Africa – an incredible and eye-opening experience! It was all thanks to Suzanne. I made the trip to Uganda four times and each time was special. I learned so much by fully immersing myself in another culture. Living and conducting scientific research in a remote location can be very challenging, which taught me to be adaptable and creative. We had to come up with innovative ways to get the job done including erecting structures to perfectly light research photos or to keep voracious ants out of our food supplies. Sometimes, things didn’t work out perfectly, but I learned to adapt and move forward in a different direction to achieve success.



While working in Uganda, I learned the importance of community engagement when conducting research, another one of the extremely valuable lessons that Suzanne taught me. To assist with fieldwork, we employed a handful of local community members, without whom our research would not have been possible. We looked to them for guidance to ensure we avoided anything that might upset the people in the communities in which we worked. They helped us understand cultural practices and the ways in which water sources were managed. Such input is critical because these communities are homes, and the people who live there have the largest stake in any research findings. This is true wherever someone may be doing research.


During our visits, we also worked with local grade schools to provide students with lessons about water quality using experiential learning techniques through Suzanne’s outreach program, Water Across the World. They learned scientific concepts by visiting local water sources to collect and analyze scientific data. The students loved it, and they would get so excited when they saw us coming up the road. Who doesn’t love leaving the classroom for a few hours and playing in the mud? Their favorite part was collecting aquatic insects to determine the quality of the water we were sampling. I loved watching them grow their knowledge through the summer and hearing about all that they had learned at the end of my stay.



Through this experience, Suzanne taught me the significance of effective science communication. What I consider to be one of my most valuable ‘transferable skills’ from graduate school is my ability to explain complex scientific concepts in a way that is easy to understand. Suzanne’s instruction helped improve both my written and public speaking skills. We can have all the science in the world, but if we don’t have people to adequately communicate that science, we won’t see the changes that we want to see in the world. Ultimately, I realized that I didn’t want to do the science anymore; I wanted to get people jazzed about the science instead, just like those students in Uganda. 


I’ve now stepped away from youth education but plan to continue my venture in science communication. Currently, I’m working as the Special Assistant to the Assistant Administrator (AA) of NOAA Research with an equally amazing mentor, Craig McLean. Arguably, one of the most important roles in my current job is communications. As one of the main liaisons between NOAA Research’s AA, internal NOAA staff, other government agencies, and international partners, it is critical for me to be able to communicate complex information succinctly to help manage our AA’s diverse portfolios focused on Oceans, Weather, and Climate with the highest level of scientific integrity. Learning this firsthand from Craig has been invaluable because he’s a phenomenal communicator. One of the key lessons I have learned from him this year is the importance of using open communications with colleagues, stakeholders, and decision-makers. This transparency and honesty can help form trusting relationships, which are critical for successful partnerships and collaboration. 


During an unorthodox year, I have also experienced the inspiring leadership that Craig has provided to the NOAA Research workforce. He is passionate about his employees, always making sure to tell them “I wear your jersey” because he’s their biggest fan. He is amazing at boosting morale and genuinely believes in the capabilities of each and every employee. Furthermore, Craig understands that the contribution of each employee is necessary to help achieve the NOAA Research vision of delivering NOAA’s future while also upholding scientific integrity. Thanks to Craig, I’m walking away from this year with insight into the qualities necessary for becoming a strong leader! 


My experiences in remote scientific research and environmental education with Dr. Suzanne Gray helped me become a determined worker who is adaptable and able to communicate effectively. Working in the federal government this year with Craig McLean, I have realized that I can use these skills to influence actionable change for U.S. aquatic resources on local, national and international scales. I plan to continue pursuing a career in the federal government as a civil servant who engages communities to help improve life for the American people and beyond, using the lessons I’ve learned along the way from my amazing mentors.


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