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On Watch - Shelley Brown, Ph.D.

Shelley Brown Ph.DAs the Education Director at Sailors for the Sea in Newport, Rhode Island, Shelley Brown, Ph.D. has turned a lifelong affinity for sailing and ocean conservation into a rewarding vocation.

“I’ve always been passionate about the ocean,” says Shelley, who lives in Newport. “I grew up right on the beach in Saunderstown, and became interested in the ocean at a very young age. I took swimming lessons, and played in tidal pools whenever I could. My parents, Chris & Kathleen Brown, owned a Pearson Triton, and I was sailing before I could walk. My dad started sailing when he moved to Rhode Island and became a professor at the University of Rhode Island, and after that he could never leave the Ocean State. I learned a lot from him, and he inspired me to go into the marine world. My parents tell me that I used to wear a bathing suit all the time, under a dress or other clothing, just in case there might be an opportunity for me to go swimming!”

“I received my Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at the University of Rhode Island,” says Shelley. “My research focused on how human-caused environmental conditions impact nitrogen cycling microbes in coastal environments, including Narragansett Bay. I was really interested in things like warming water temperatures and low oxygen, how those things impact the microbes, and what that means for our environment. During my Ph.D., I did some work as a visiting scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Atlantic Ecology Division. We would go out into the field to collect sediment cores, bring them back to the lab in Narragansett, and put the cores under different environmental conditions such as ranging oxygen levels. We would monitor what the microbes were doing, and my job was to identify the different microbes and determine when they were active and what was driving their activity.”

“I felt that there was a gap between the research and that information getting out to the public, so I did a lot of outreach work during my Ph.D. I wanted to get into the educational field, so I joined the team at Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. The Clearwater sails between Albany and New York City, and we’d take school groups out twice a day, about 50 kids each time. We’d teach them about what’s living in the Hudson River, the river’s history, and navigation, and they’d help raise the sails. Pete Seeger had passed away just before I started working aboard the Clearwater, but his legacy definitely lives on. A lot of the crewmembers are musicians, and they always brought their instruments aboard and played. We’d have a moment of silence during each cruise so that everyone could experience what was happening on the river. To break the silence, someone would start playing a guitar, ukulele or violin. It was amazing! Next, I worked at the Block Island Maritime Institute, where I designed marine science activities for kids and adults. We’d do things like squid dissections, and I’d bring them out in the field to learn about beach ecology and all types of other things.”

“Sailors for the Sea’s mission is to educate, inspire and activate the boating community towards healing the ocean. We’re at an interface where we can get ocean science out to a community that already loves the water and being on it, and it’s an honor to work with this group to educate sailors and boaters so that they can also take action. As Education Director, one of my primary responsibilities is our KELP program, which is Kids Environmental Lesson Plans. I work with leading marine education and research institutes to develop lesson plans for informal educators that don’t have a strong science background, such as sailing instructors and camp counselors. We take ocean health topics such as overfishing and ocean acidification, and design lesson plans that use minimal materials while making it easy for these educators to teach students about those topics. I also promote KELP to schools and various sailing groups to broaden our reach.”

“A lot of students receive a ‘terrestrial-centric’ education, and many people don’t know how much the ocean influences our lives. One out of every two breaths we take comes from oxygen produced by phytoplankton, and the ocean is responsible for our weather, much of our food, and transportation of goods. I think it’s really important to take a ‘marine-centric’ view. Pollution from marine debris, runoff from fertilizers are major problems, and excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes ocean acidification, which is very harmful to a lot of creatures. I’m helping to edit our Clean Boating Guide, which will provide information about what boaters can do to be more environmentally friendly.”

“Our President, Mark Davis, co-chaired the Education Committee for the Volvo Ocean Race Newport Stopover. Working with Sail Newport, we designed the Exploration Zone, with about 20 educational partners from Clean Ocean Access to the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. We had 3,000 school kids come from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, and many of them did the Try Sailing at Sail Newport. It was very inspiring.”

“Our latest campaign is the No Trash, No Trail, No Trace Pledge. People can take the NT3 Pledge at sailorsforthesea.org, and we send monthly emails about things they can do in their daily lives to help the ocean, such as using refillable water bottles and bamboo utensils instead of plastic ones. There are many things sailors can do, like using a more efficient engine or renewable energy sources. We can’t keep going on the same path, or our oceans aren’t going to make it.”

“I love getting out on the water any time I can – canoeing, kayaking, and sailing on my parent’s Alberg 37 Inisfail,” says Shelley. “Sailors for the Sea is doing incredible work to raise awareness about our ocean’s health and the importance of preserving it for future generations, and it’s an honor to be working with people that have the same passions and goals.”


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