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Strengthening Networks and Sharing Knowledge on Virginia’s Coasts

By Julia Robins, Virginia Sea Grant

Stephanie Smallegan was pleasantly surprised when she got a call from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) earlier this fall. The Virginia Sea Grant graduate research fellow at Virginia Tech had yet to begin her research studying the effects of storm damage on barrier islands, but TNC was the second of two interested end-users to contact her.

“That’s really encouraging and very exciting,” she says.

It’s also encouraging for Virginia Sea Grant (VASG). In 2012, VASG began requiring graduate research fellows to work with a non-research mentor such as a resource manager, teacher, or other end-user. VASG believed these connections would enhance the usefulness of fellows’ research by considering end-user needs early on, while strengthening VASG’s community of researchers, extension programs, and end-users.

“As a network grows, it’s important that the bridging links between its subgroups grow as well”, says VASG Director Troy Hartley. Otherwise, information known to some within the network may be lost to other network members, and the network’s function as a whole will suffer. When this happens, says Hartley, “you get to a point where somebody in a network might need to make a decision, and someone else in the network has information that would be very helpful in making that decision, but the decision maker is unaware that the information even exists.”

Hartley suspected that adding graduate research fellows would increase the connectivity of the entire VASG network, because the fellows would expand the network by connecting research, extension, and end-users. He developed a network analysis model to test his hypothesis—and he was right. Adding just one fellow to the VASG network strengthened the connections between all individuals.

“The model analyzed network-wide measures,” stresses Hartley. “Everyone in the network is benefitting from having this new connection exist.”

Although it started as a hypothetical model, several real-life examples are now validating the model’s outcome.

“There are new connections being added, beyond what we were modeling, that are increasing the breadth of this network even further,” says Hartley. “Outreach staff and researchers who are not affiliated with the fellow are also directly benefiting from the fellow’s new connections—all network members are more aware of information that exists in the network than they were before.”

Smallegan is one of those real-life examples. In her fellowship, she will research the effects of storm damage on barrier islands and assist with teaching physics and earth science at Radford High School in Radford, VA. She’s also met other end-users with interest in her work, including the US Army Corps of Engineers and the town of Chincoteague. Members of the VASG outreach program, including marine educators at Virginia Institute of Marine Science and climate adaptation and resilience faculty located at Old Dominion University, have also been advising Smallegan for her fellowship. 

Hartley emphasizes that in a network, these interactions benefit both the fellow and other participants.

“These are synergistic, network-wide benefits that are many times more powerful than a simple, two-way win-win outcome,” he says.

The fellowship allows Smallegan to focus on her research while making connections with stakeholders and end-users, something she hopes to focus on more in the future. While she loves to teach and hopes to eventually work at a university, she first wants to work in the private industry.

“I think VASG is a perfect bridge for that gap,” says Smallegan. “While I’m in Ph.D. school they fund me to do this research and become proficient in being the engineer that I want to be, but then they also connect me to stakeholders and end-users, which is where I want to end up.”

“There’s this full circle that happens,” she says, “and Virginia Sea Grant is kind of right in the middle of it.”

The Virginia Sea Grant graduate research fellowship program supports five to seven marine and coastal science research students every year and requires students to work with an outreach mentor of their choosing. The program was unique when it launched in 2012, and Virginia Sea Grant is currently reviewing applications for a third fellows class.

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