Talk NERRdy to Me: Nancy Torres & Matt Virden

Apr 28, 2021 | Grand Bay, Mississippi, Reserves, Talk NERRdy to Me, Tijuana River, California

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29-soon-to-be-30 Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed two Davidson fellows for the price of one: Nancy Torres (above left), at California’s Tijuana River Reserve, and Matt Virden (above right), from Mississippi’s Grand Bay Reserve. In our system for only half a year, they’ve already drunk our brackish Kool Aid.

Nik: Nancy and Matt, welcome to Talk NERRdy, this time with two people! Double the pleasure, double the fun. You’re both Davidson fellows, which is a new program for the NERRS. First of all, how did you find the fellowship program?

Nancy: My advisor, Jeff Crooks, was actually at the Tijuana River Reserve. We came up with some projects combining my interest in ecotoxicology with the needs of the Reserve listed for the fellowship. I’m always looking for mentorship opportunities.

Matt: I worked for Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center. I had a research project that I was just finishing up, and my boss said ‘there’s this new opportunity I’ve heard about, would you be interested?’ I had worked with the people at Grand Bay Reserve a few times, so I knew what they were about and what was going to happen with the project.

Nik: So Nancy, are you from California, and Matt, are you from Mississippi?

Nancy: Yeah, I’m from Southern California, Greater Los Angeles area. Now I’m two hours south of that. I go to school at the University of San Diego, and the Reserve is about a 20-minute drive south.

Matt: I’m from Montgomery, Alabama. I moved to Starkle, Mississippi, for undergrad at Mississippi State University, and then came down to the coast after I graduated.

Nik: Had either of you worked coastally before? 

Matt: My major was Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture. I randomly took an internship with my advisor in 2018, and that’s how I ended up on the coast. When I came down here, I liked it a lot.

Nancy: I did my undergrad at UC Santa Barbara, which has a beautiful campus right on the coast. I got my first internship there at the Valentine Lab of Earth Sciences. I did a project on microbial oceanography, and I realized the extent of all the coastal issues there are to help with, so now I’m getting my master’s here in Environmental & Ocean Sciences.

Nik: Did either of you worry about finding a job or career in these fields? You’re of a generation that has seen a couple economic collapses in your lifetime. So I always wonder about recent college grads: did you think that there would be opportunities going forward?

Nancy: I had no idea what getting an environmental science degree meant career-wise when I was interested in pursuing one! Luckily I was part of the McNairs Scholars Program that helps underrepresented groups on their way to get their PhD. That program gave me the tools to understand what research actually means, how to conceptualize a project, how to work with an advisor…

Matt: I don’t think I ever worried about finding a job, but I was more worried about what I, personally, would want to do, because I don’t know! People still ask, and I tell them, well, I’ve got a couple more years to figure it out. Hopefully I do!

Nik: You both have gravitated towards wildlife, oceans… were there experiences earlier in your lives that pushed you towards this? Were you outdoorsy kids? 

Nancy: I’ve always loved being outdoors, yes. And then when I went to UC Santa Barbara, I spent a lot more time outdoors, being by the coast, and I became aware of all these environmental issues. I really wanted to be part of that and do what I could.

Matt: Right along the same lines, I always loved being outdoors. Growing up in Alabama, that’s pretty much what you dogo outdoors. And then my grandmother lives along the Florida coast, so we’d always go down and visit her every summer. I remembered that when I did my first internshipI was like, oh yeah, I love the coast! That was probably a major reason I got into the field.

Nik: In both Santa Barbara and Grand Bay, the oil industry is a big presence. I mean, you can see oil rigs from the shore, usually. How does that play into your experiences? 

Matt: Events like the Deepwater Horizon spill have funded a lot of environmental work and restoration. That’s the side I’m more involved in. The project I’m doing research on, studying oyster reefs, is funded from the BP settlement. So indirectly, it affects everything I’m working on.

Nancy: Walking along the shores in Santa Barbara, you would get tar spots on your feet pretty regularly. It was a normal thing to bring oil wipes so you could just wipe them off. My first research project was to see how the microbes around the area respond to large amounts of oil and hydrocarbons.

Nik: Tell me more about your current projects.

Nancy: Mine involves ecotoxicology. I’ll be sampling sediments and target species to use as abiotic and biotic indicators of the contaminant levels within the Tijuana River Estuary. I’m doing my own fieldwork assessing current conditions to combine with historical data from past monitoring efforts to get a timeline of pollution levels within the area and see how that’s been responding to changing inputs and management strategies. It’s especially exciting because there’s a lot of interest in remediating that pollution right now.

Nik: For those who don’t know, Tijuana’s unique in that half of the watershed is in Mexico, yes? So are you working across the border?

Nancy: Yes, about a whole 2/3 of the watershed is in Mexico. I want to! I am very interested in adding a social science component, because both communities are being affected by the issue that’s presented here. I want to find a way I can do outreach and turn it into a win-win situation for everybody. 

Nik: What about you, Matt?

Matt: Like I mentioned, it’s a very large RESTORE-funded project in Mississippi. They’re constructing oyster reefs at four different bays along the coast, including Grand Bay. They’ll be constructing multiple different designs at two different locations, both intertidal and subtidal reefs. So my project is really to come in and evaluate how those reefs are performing. 

Nik: Is this an aquaculture project, studying the oysters themselves, or their impact?

Matt: Their impact. I’m really looking at secondary productivity and wave energy. Basically if they have any effects on the waves and shorelinesif they reduce erosion or if there’s any kind of interaction between the shoreline and the reefs. One aspect of the project is the Management Application Team. We call it the MAT. Different stakeholders get together and influence the project, give suggestions about what they would like to see from the project, or if we’re doing something wrong or could be doing it better, they give us a heads up and suggest ‘hey, try it this way.’ This way we get that input while the project is still going on.

Nik: The Davidson Fellowships are short timeframes, so I’m sure you’ve had to hit the ground… eh, the water running… eh, swimming. How have you been welcomed into the system and into your individual Reserves? I know it’s been difficult for everybody with the pandemic.

Nancy: My Reserve has weekly meetings online, so at least we “see” each other pretty consistently. And across the NERRS there’s always really cool events. At the annual meeting you could really tell everyone’s an awesome group of people looking to collaborate. 

Nik: That’s good to hear. It was our first-ever virtual one… we were making it up as we went along!

Matt: I’ve gotten four emails this morning about working with staff at the Reserve for a presentation to local educators. Even though that’s not my project, they still invite me in and are asking me to bring aspects of my research in.

Nik: Have you two found other ways to go “cross-sector”?

Matt: Yeah, definitely. It’s pretty cool the amount of opportunities that have arisen just from applying to this fellowship. I now have connections with NOAA, the Reserve staff, the state partner. And also all the other Davidson fellows. Everyone gets together to talk about papers and projects. 

Nancy: Yeah, it’s been really cool collaborating with all the fellows. Everyone that manages the fellows has done a really great job making sure we’re all connected and supported. There are a lot of opportunities to collaborate with others.

Nik: It sounds so 21st Century, in the whole networking aspect! If you started in science 40 years ago, you might be getting papers on microfiche and having to read them at the library. And if you wanted to get in contact with somebody you had to call or write them a letter and wait a couple months! The whole collaborative aspect of science, on which the NERRS is built, seems to be part of the foundation of the fellowship program too. We’re grateful to Congress that they took this leap and stepped up to fund the Davidson Fellows. It’s so gratifying to see new young scientists that are going to go out there and make a difference. I’m glad we got the chance to catch up. What advice would you have for the next class of fellows?

Matt: Take all the opportunities that you can, even if they’re not mandatory. The more stuff you can do, the more people that you meet, that’s just more experience for you.

Nancy: Come open-minded and with the intent of staying flexible and finding ways to develop collaboration. I feel like I keep saying the word collaboration! But it’s so integral to project development. What’s really important is to think of who your project will benefit, who’s your audience, and reach out to as many stakeholders as you can in the beginning. Think about different perspectives and the communities who would be affected by your project results. 

Nik: I love to hear folks new to our system, part of this new program, already talking about it’s essential NERRdiness. You’re pulling on the strands of what ties the system together. You already see it’s not just these different places, it’s a network for collaboration across geographies and sectors. You’ve drunk the Kool Aid.

Nancy Torres (left).

Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

ReservesGrand Bay, MississippiTalk NERRdy to Me: Nancy Torres & Matt Virden