While some universities boast of their land grants, the UW is where you’ll find cutting-edge research and education on sea and space.
Two teams based at the University of Washington face some of science’s most daunting challenges. Sea levels are rising, the ocean’s chemistry is changing, invasive species threaten native wildlife, and shellfish harvesters face risk to their livelihoods as heat waves and harmful algal blooms prevail. For the staff of the Washington Sea Grant program, responding to these problems is just a sample of the work they do.
Meanwhile, the team from the Washington Space Grant plans another year of rocket launches, satellite builds and high-altitude balloon research to engage students from
all over the Evergreen State as the future workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields—where a new generation of workers is badly needed.
In addition to their work aimed at changing the world, the teams from the Washington sea and space grant programs fill their days applying for funding, distributing scholarship and fellowship funds and reporting back to NASA and NOAA about their accomplishments. They mentor aspiring astronauts. They help coordinate tribal summits. They write books about oysters. They tweet about an eclipse. But their work, decades in the making, isn’t often front-page news.
Back in 1966, before the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) officially existed, the federal Sea Grant program was created to accompany the federal Land Grant program that was established a century earlier. In 1866, the need for working-class people to study agricultural engineering was stronger than ever, as workers shifted from fields to factories during the Industrial Revolution. In 1963, Athelstan Spilhaus (an eccentric geophysicist, meteorologist, futurist and inventor who created a device that measured temperatures at the depths of the ocean) figured it was about time to apply that same logic to the sea.
By 1968, the national Sea Grant secured federal funding. In 1970, it was incorporated into the newly official NOAA. And by 1971, the first four Sea Grant colleges were designated: Texas A&M, the University of Rhode Island, Oregon State University and the University of Washington.
Today, 34 programs—from the Pacific to the Great Lakes to the Atlantic region—contribute to Sea Grant’s research, education outreach and training programs.
“Washington Sea Grant at the UW is a leader in coastal research and education,” says Brooke Carney, NOAA federal program officer for Washington Sea Grant. “The University’s unique access to a variety of marine-related resources and strong relationships with area tribes allow Washington Sea Grant to work collaboratively on diverse projects that generate coastal knowledge and support local communities and Tribes.”
A shining example of that collaboration is Washington Sea Grant’s latest publication, “Heaven on the Half Shell: The Story of the Oyster in the Pacific Northwest.” Authors (and Washington Sea Grant former and current staff members) David George Gordon, Samantha Larson and MaryAnn Barron Wagner, ’81, revamped the book, originally published in 2001, to include new shellfish harvesting stories, particularly from the perspective of Indigenous communities and women in aquaculture, including local experts like Ed Carriere (Suquamish Tribe), Charlene Krise (Squaxin Island Tribe) and the late Kurt Grinnell (Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe). “All shellfish stories, oysters included, begin with the tribes,” says Wagner. “The second edition of the book acknowledges these first stewards and their innovations in growing seafood.”
Washington Sea Grant maintains partnerships with tribes that reaches back to the early 1970s. The team convenes the Indigenous Aquaculture Collaborative Network, which comprises Pacific-region Sea Grant offices, Northwest Tribes and First Nations, Native Hawaiian and Indigenous communities throughout the Pacific Rim. Melissa Poe, ’04, ’09, social scientist on staff at Washington Sea Grant, helps foster community-to-community knowledge exchanges to support early career Indigenous professionals and uplift the healing and restoration work led by Native communities. Recently, the group helped to rebuild an 800-year-old fish pond on Oahu in Hawai’i. They’ve also supported stone-built fishing innovations in Palau and worked in 4,000-year-old clam gardens in British Columbia—all part of a diverse complex of mariculture systems created by Indigenous people over millennia.
“Our goal at Washington Sea Grant is to make space for these dialogues,” Wagner says. “Community partners are able to reflect and form connections that nurture continued activities.”
The rich history of traditional knowledge and Indigenous aquaculture practices may reveal a path forward for the Northwest, a region battling sea-level rise, harmful algal blooms, the invasive European green crab, and even the threat of offshore drilling in southwest Washington. Looking to the past might hold a key to a sustainable future.
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NASA had its hands full in 1969, including landing men on the moon. As the war in Vietnam strained the federal government’s budget, NASA saw drastic cuts in funding; meanwhile, the Apollo program had accomplished its mission, and the public was losing interest. Looking to the future of space exploration and research, NASA decided to invest $115 million in 1,400 projects at 230 universities, including $1.5 million to create the Aerospace and Engineering Research Building (AERB) at the UW.
Little did they know, Congress would go on to establish the National Space Grant College and Fellowship program in 1988. The UW would be designated as the home of the Washington Space Grant consortium, and NASA would take control of the program in 1989. By 2021, things came full circle as the Washington Space Grant relocated from the UW Department of Earth & Space Sciences into the UW’s Aeronautics & Astronautics program in the NASA-funded AERB, “which is kind of, if I daresay, poetic,” says Chris Wallish, communications manager.
“It wasn’t my plan to be the director of the Washington Space Grant. … the sequence of events that led to me being the director was somewhat unexpected,” says Kristi Morgansen, the principal investigator of the program and chair of the Aeronautics & Astronautics department. Former principal investigator Robert Winglee, who spent nearly 30 years at the UW researching space plasma physics, magnetospheric physics, advanced propulsion and engineering, died after a heart attack at the age of 62.
“Our whole reason for being is to support STEM students, which is usually how I start off explaining what we do, because we do a vast array of things.”
Chris Wallish, Washington Space Grant communications manager
But Winglee and Morgansen shared a passion that fits perfectly into the NASA Space Grant ethos: “taking actions and providing opportunities for students in STEM to try to increase the demographics to reflect the state. And that’s something I feel very strongly about,” Morgansen says.
“NASA has daring goals, some of which are longer term. The future of NASA, aviation and space exploration will be in the hands of today’s STEM students,” says NASA’s Space Grant Project Manager Tomas Torres-Gonzalez. “The University of Washington and the Washington Space Grant Consortium are leading and supporting activities which provide a diverse population of students hands-on learning opportunities.”
From kindergarteners to doctoral researchers, students are Washington Space Grant’s top priority. “We’re really unlike a lot of other grant programs where we’re not actively engaged in research,” says Wallish. “Our whole reason for being is to support STEM students, which is usually how I start off explaining what we do, because we do a vast array of things.”
This year, the Washington Space Grant team is doubling its cohort size for the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, affectionately referred to as “SURP.” Undergrads from across Washington spend their summer in the lab doing research, which isn’t ubiquitous at the UW, let alone at smaller community colleges. “We usually have about 30 to 40 students, and this year it looks like we have enough funding to [accommodate] about 80 students,” Wallish says. “It is going to be huge. A little terrifying, but exciting.”
Exciting because we need more STEM grads from all backgrounds. “Teams with a broad range of perspectives are better at problem-solving,” Morgansen says. “They come up with more innovation than teams that are all coming from the same background.”
Last summer, Morgansen dug into some data. “There are 3.3 million high school students graduating each year. And to be honest, I think maybe 10% are going into STEM. Not just four-year college degrees, but at all. And we need 40% to 50%.” It’s true that the numbers don’t look great: Only 20% of all high school graduates are prepared for college-level coursework in STEM majors. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 27% of STEM-educated graduates end up in a STEM job, even though the demand for such jobs is continuously growing. (Yes, that includes recent layoffs in the tech sector.)
“Not only do we need to just get more people going” into STEM fields, Morgansen says, “but if you look at the country’s demographics, that means they will necessarily have to be people of color, different racial and ethnic backgrounds. There is no other option.” Women comprise only 27% of the STEM workforce, despite making up more than 50% of college-educated workers. And according to the Educational Advisory Board, more than a third of Black (40%) and Latino (37%) students switch out of STEM majors before completing a degree.
Washington Space Grant staff offer students a small college atmosphere within the UW’s large campus, and 92% of students who participate in their programs continue to pursue STEM after graduation. After their transition to Aeronautics & Astronautics, Morgansen took an interdisciplinary approach to sharing the small team’s large workload. Part of that is paying particular attention to students who do not get the scholarships or internships they applied for; how can they improve next time? “If you look at their background,” Morgansen says, “it’s not really any different from the ones who are getting these scholarships.
“They don’t have the mentoring. … they don’t have the support structure. In order to fix this, it’s got to be a rather fundamental change in how we’re doing things. I’m spending a lot of time in every space that I have access to, shouting this out.”
For her part, Morgansen is one of 13 (out of 52 total) directors of Space Grant consortia who is a woman. “Reaching back two decades, we have been led by someone either of a marginalized gender or a person of color,” Wallish says. The team works toward parity, having equal numbers of men and women in their program. This year, they came close with 40% women.
Both Morgansen and Wallish have ideas on how to engage the public, whether by recreating “Schoolhouse Rock” for the TikTok era or augmenting NASA’s citizen science programs, which allow people to participate virtually in scientific discoveries with just a cellphone or a laptop. Perhaps getting a taste of space will entice a future astronaut.
That’s a far tougher sell for Washington Sea Grant, given that commercial fishers, who are among their key stakeholders, participate in one of the deadliest jobs on the West Coast. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, commercial fishers face fatal injuries at a rate of 132.1 for every 100,000 workers in 2020. Compare those odds to an average of 3.4 fatalities in 2020 for every 100,000 workers across all jobs.
That’s where Washington Sea Grant’s Safety at Sea program comes in: Since the 1990s, they’ve trained Washington fishermen on safety equipment and skills for assessing and treating victims of crises like hypothermia, drowning and fractures. Thanks to this program, 15 lives (and an estimated $2 million in gear) have been saved.
Pacific Northwest history has also been carefully preserved by Washington Sea Grant researchers and writers. “Heaven on the Half Shell” faithfully renders the story of Washington’s favorite bivalve, the oyster.
“Oysters have this charisma that’s been going on since the gold rush in California,” says Gordon, the former Sea Grant staffer who also wrote the first version of “Heaven on the Half Shell.” “They’re symbols of wealth and success. And well, there’s kind of a sexiness to oysters that you’re not going to get from other shellfish. Manila clams, for example. Or geoducks.” They’re so appealing, in fact, that Washington is the top oyster-producing state in the country, with an industry valued at $70 million. The industry was hit hard by the Pacific Northwest’s 2021 heat wave, an event that is likely to repeat. Preserving this history could be more important than ever.
From the history of the oyster to saving lives at sea, Washington Sea Grant’s team of 34 experts from all walks of marine science are ready with solutions, whether it is seaweed farming (the work of Meg Chadsey, ’98) or collaborating with Indigenous communities around shared marine resources (engagements of Poe). As the European green crab threatens Washington’s shorelines, the Sea Grant team is on the front lines removing invasive species and protecting habitats for native clams, oysters and Dungeness crab. And in the 1970s, their marine spatial planning projects helped solve a major coastal conflict.
“There’s a limited amount of space near the coast that could be used for towing vessels or for crabbers,” explains Russell Callender, former director of Washington Sea Grant, who announced his retirement on April 7. “Instead of having them in conflict, we brokered an agreement that over the years allowed the crabbing community and the towboat operators to work safely and avoid conflicts.
“I think it’s amazing that it’s lasted for 50 years and it’s still ongoing. It shows the value of Washington Sea Grant being embedded in the community for a long period of time.”
The impact of these programs goes beyond the classroom. You can see it in the increasingly diversified STEM workforce, in a satellite still orbiting the Earth, in restoring Indigenous sea gardens throughout the Pacific Rim. You can even find it in the Lummi Nation’s devil’s club seeds on the International Space Station. If sea and space are at the outer reaches, Washington is ready to navigate whatever they offer.
Since the Washington Sea Grant and Washington Space Grant teams don’t often have a classroom presence, their work might go unseen by some. Check out their core programs.
34 staff members along the coast
Research: The Washington Sea Grant’s partnership with NOAA allows them to sponsor research focused on coastal and marine communities, fish and fisheries, shellfish and aquaculture and ecosystem health.
Example: P. Sean McDonald, an associate teaching professor in environmental studies, is working with a team of Washington Sea Grant and UW investigators to monitor the DNA of the invasive European green crab in order to track the species.
Outreach: Teams from Washington Sea Grant help communities and workers with everything from proper boat sewage disposal to technical advice on how to prepare for sea level rise along our shorelines.
Example: Using visualizations created by the Washington Sea Grant team, Metro Parks Tacoma altered the design of Owen Beach Park to avoid erosion from rising sea levels.
Education: From fellowships to summer camps to field trips, WSG helps people learn how the ocean affects them—and how they affect the ocean.
Example: The Washington Sea Grant helped develop the Wild Seafood Exchange, a forum for fishermen, seafood buyers and restaurant operators to help fishermen boost profitability and discuss industry needs after the pandemic downturn.
Communication: Whether you’d like to get into the nitty gritty of ocean acidification or just enjoy recipes for oysters, find magazines, podcasts and more for marine-loving Washingtonians.
Example: The second edition of “Heaven on the Half Shell” is packed with history, photos, recipes, firsthand accounts from generations of oyster farmers and the cultural significance of this special mollusca.
Two full-time staff members, plus three faculty directors
Scholarships, internships and fellowships: Both graduate and undergrad students can get professional development experience in addition to financial assistance.
Example: Space Grant Scholars earn $2,000 to $5,000 while gaining hands-on experience doing research in the lab.
CubeSat Technology Development: Students get hands-on experience by developing small satellites for space missions. Example: In 2019, a group of students launched HuskySat-1, a small satellite that has since orbited the Earth. Against all odds, HuskySat-1 transmits data back to the lab years later.
Rocketry: The Washington Space Grant team supports the UW’s robust Aeronautics & Astronautics department in a rocketry program for students interested in supersonic flight.
Example: We watched a rocket launch in the community of White Swan. Check out the video.
High-Altitude Balloons: Students can send objects up to 115,000 feet high using low-cost helium balloons.
Example: During the 2017 solar eclipse, 100 teenagers from tribes across the Pacific Northwest released balloons—each containing a “payload” of culturally significant items like feathers and wooden instruments—all the way to space and back. The balloons tracked changes in temperature and gravity during the eclipse.
Pictured at top: Native to the Pacific Coast of North America, the Olympia oyster is one of five species commonly farmed in Washington, along with the Pacific, Kumamoto, Shigoku and European flat oysters.