Drew Talley, PhD, is an assistant professor of Marine Science and Environmental Studies, whose research focuses on the interconnectedness of habitats, and how the interdependence between systems can change with the addition of human influence. He has helped forge an enduring partnership between USD and Ocean Discovery Institute, an organization that empowers underrepresented youth to protect the environment. The College of Arts and Sciences currently boasts two students from the institute's Ocean Leaders Program, Daisy Mercado and Yajaira Nunez.
Talley serves as the science director for Ocean Discovery Institute, one of eight organizations to receive the President's Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. "Through their commitment to education and innovation, these individuals and organizations are playing a crucial role in the development of our 21st century workforce," President Obama said in a White House press release. "Our Nation owes them a debt of gratitude for helping ensure that America remains the global leader in science and engineering for years to come."
The Ocean Discovery Institute was recently honored with the PAESMEM award. As the institute's science director, how do you feel this prestigious recognition will impact your approach to student mentoring?
Receiving this award is an incredible honor, and I think that having the White House and the National Science Foundation recognize our work validates what we feel every time we see our students' growth—our strategy of using authentic scientific research and mentoring as a way to prepare young scientists from the underserved community is working. My hope is that this recognition will help efforts to replicate this program elsewhere, and also to encourage innovative partnerships, like this one between USD and Ocean Discovery Institute.
"We put a real premium on hands-on experience, so students with a degree from USD have a depth of skills and knowledge that are tougher to acquire at larger institutions."
What was your reaction when you heard the news?
I was ecstatic—humbled, honored and ecstatic. I immediately offered to loan my 4-year-old daughter's Barack Obama doll to Ocean Discovery Institute, so they could have it there when the news was shared with the staff! But mostly, I could not wait to tell the students in the program, because in so many ways it is their award.
You mentioned the value of student internships in a KPBS interview, and are a proponent of multidisciplinary learning. Tell us a little about your USD Ocean Leader Scholars, Yajaira Nunez and Daisy Mercado. How do you think time in the program has impacted each student's educational experience?
As Ocean Leaders, Yajaira and Daisy are part of a pathway from middle school to college and on to science and conservation careers. This pathway is made up of a series of interconnected after-school and summer programs that act like building blocks to develop students' science knowledge and skills. In addition, students receive intensive support services that provide them with the tools to overcome obstacles along the way. As Ocean Leaders, Daisy and Yajaira have had the opportunity to work with scientists in the field, they have been mentors to younger students and leaders in their community. With these experiences, Daisy and Yajaira have built upon their initial spark of curiosity to begin their paths as leaders in science.
With USD's participation in ASHOKA's Changemaker Campus Consortium, how do you expect the Marine Science program to evolve? Is this something you hope to incorporate into your teaching and research? How do you think Marine Science and Environmental Studies fits into the idea of a changemaker campus?
I anticipate that USD's Changemaker Campus designation will help Marine Science and Environmental Studies students interested in social change connect to others both within and outside the university with similar interests. Marine Science and Environmental Studies is central to this effort, in part because many of the challenges that are faced worldwide involve issues of environmental awareness and sustainability. Our teaching and research focuses on understanding the various "spheres" of the earth system (e.g., atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere), and how those spheres interact. Part of changemaking requires looking at the connections between spheres and seeing how changing one small link often has effects that ramify globally.
Tell us about your coastal ecosystem research.
My research focuses on understanding how habitats are connected to each other, and figuring out how that interdependence between systems changes with human influence. To answer these questions, I turn to two very different places—the wetlands in southern California and islands in Baja California. While these are strikingly different environments, the underlying principles are the same—seemingly distinct habitats are deeply interconnected, once you start looking at the food webs and related processes. And both of these are critically threatened habitats, which makes them not only scientifically interesting, but compelling for conservation reasons.
What makes USD a great choice for prospective science students?
The program is designed to set students up for success—starting with the Preceptorial and Living Learning Communities, where students share a common experience under a team of advisors, mentors and supporters—to the small class sizes that allow faculty to do a better job of assessing students' learning and adapting when needed. We also put a real premium on hands-on experience, so students with a degree from USD have a depth of skills and knowledge that are tougher to acquire at larger institutions.
What is your advice to students who hope to become research scientists?
Like any skill, you get better at research by doing research. Be open to opportunities to work in someone's lab, to help a grad student with his or her project, and above all, explore!
One of my own mentors, Dr. Paul Dayton at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, had a great quote about getting students out in nature that resonates with me, and also I think permeates my feeling about science education:
"There is simply no substitute for actually experiencing nature – to see, smell, and listen to the integrated pattern that nature offers an open mind."
- Anne Malinoski ‘11