Talk NERRdy to Me: Rebecca Ellin

Sep 28, 2023

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s interstate investigator Nik Charov spoke with Rebecca Ellin, Manager at the North Carolina Reserve. They talked about reloading National Hurricane Center forecasts, bicoastal curiosity, and staying young while getting old.

Nik: Rebecca Ellin, welcome to Talk NERRdy. It’s taken us too long to get you here, you being one of the originals, the greatest somebody who’s spent her entire career in coastal management and yet whom we haven’t accosted yet.

Rebecca: Hi Nik. It’s quite an honor and a privilege to be here.

Nik: Really? 

Rebecca: Mostly. No, of course it is.

Nik: I have a big festival here in Maine this weekend [Editor: Sept. 9-10], so I’m glued to the weather updates and the National Hurricane Center. Y’all are right there in the big bend of the East Coast that catches a fair share of storms—when something like, say, Hurricane Lee forms 1,500 miles away, already a Category 4… how do you feel? 

Rebecca: Nervous. Throughout hurricane season, especially starting in August, it’s nerve wracking to constantly be on guard and not know how the storms may transform over time and where they’re going to hit. The NOAA National Weather Service does a fabulous job with their forecasts; I can’t imagine what things were like before that, but there’s still a level of unpredictability. 

Nik: Is there a little devil on your shoulder that’s like ‘go check the latest model runs,’ or do you rely on somebody to bring you updates? 

Rebecca: I check regularly. We have preparations pretty much down pat here. We don’t actually manage our office facilities so we have reduced responsibilities compared to other reserves, but there’s still a lot that we need to do and you just worry about your team and the people in your community. That heightened awareness and not feeling surprised is how we try to feel best prepared at the North Carolina Reserve.

Nik: Aside from a brief stint with the California Coastal Commission, which all Rebeccas of NERRA seemingly have to do, and where there are no hurricanes- 

Rebecca: there just was!

Nik: Oooh, right. But: you’ve spent your career in the Carolinas, of which there are two-

Rebecca: –there are!

Nik: Do you feel that Carolinian coastal communities are more prepared than they used to be? 

Rebecca: I can speak to North Carolina. In 2018, Hurricane Florence was a real wake-up call because we hadn’t had a big storm in a while. Some parts of the coast are still in recovery mode from that. We haven’t had a really big storm since, so you always worry about complacency. Many areas along our coast are seeing more flooding on a regular basis and experiencing how that’s impacting their daily lives. That is certainly helping with thinking about what we collectively need to do with communities to get ready. Recognizing the increased and more intense nature of storms and understanding sea level rise changes are a big part of this. One of those tidal gauge stations where sea level is measured is right outside our office here on Piver’s Island, so for this location in Beaufort, NC, we have really good data on what’s happening. Because of the interest in this data in the different regions along the Carolina Coast, more stations have gone in and we have a better sense of what’s underway. 

Nik: Do heightened awareness, better data, and more monitoring mean fewer surprises?

Rebecca: We always hope for fewer surprises. We all want to be as prepared as possible, but that’s one of the challenges and draws of working in coastal management. We’re going to do our best to be prepared for the things we know are coming, but things will pop up that we need to be ready to handle on a moment’s notice—whether it’s unanticipated impacts from a storm or new and novel use of coastal resources that we hadn’t anticipated. It runs the gamut and keeps our jobs exciting.

Nik: Can we talk about the personnel change that’s going on in the NERR system, which was, perhaps, a surprise to some people? There’s been more of an outflow lately, though there’s also new talent coming in. I’d like to talk about the Davidson Fellows and the development of our talent pool in a minute, but in terms of the NERRA senior leadership and the people that have been involved in the system for decades, there are retirements, there are career moves happening. How does that leave you feeling?

Rebecca: I have lots of feelings. I’m always excited for colleagues when they have an opportunity to retire or move on to a new opportunity that feels like a good and exciting fit for them, but on the other hand, you’re sad to see your colleagues go because you’ve developed—and I think this is very true in the NERRS—very collegial working relationships with those folks. I didn’t foresee the day when I would be in the more “seasoned” group, yet here I am. 

Nik: It’s okay to lose NERRA presidents like Keith Laakkonen, Jace Tunnell, and Willy Reay [Editor: For the last time, Nik, Willy Reay is NOT retired], because they didn’t really do anything. But we all know somebody like Lisa Auermuller is worth 10 of those guys

Rebecca: I was just on a call with Lisa! Some folks who have left continue to be engaged in different ways. I think that’s one of the opportunities when people move on is that we continue to benefit from their expertise. When I reflect on transition, the NERRS provide such a multidisciplinary work environment and an opportunity to work with people in so many different areas of expertise. I think it gives folks a great jumping off point—to take these aspects of the NERRS that are part of our niche (collaborative science, interdisciplinary and applied work) and inject them into whatever that next thing may be. It spreads the love of the way in which the Reserve System works. We have a lot of friends, but we always want to have more friends who can help speak on behalf of the program and when people move on they take their understanding and hopefully support of the NERRS with them. 

Nik: It sounds like you’re pro-colonialism—you want NERRds to go infect other agencies and organizations!

Rebecca: Well, I’m pro-growth, ok? I’m pro personal growth and growth of the system and NERRA and that means change. Change can be hard, but it can also be positive.

Nik: I do think people need to see other places, bring back wisdom. How important is it to go somewhere geographically different for a while? You went from the Carolinas to California and then back. …What, you didn’t like California? Who doesn’t like California?

Rebecca: I love California. I was born there.

Nik: Okay, so you went from California to South Carolina to California to North Carolina?

Rebecca: Well, if you want to know all the dots, I was in California, Guam, Virginia, South Carolina, California, and North Carolina. I bounced around a little bit and I feel like it’s been really value-added. 

Nik: And you just hate the Midwest? 

Rebecca: I have lived near a coast my entire life.

Nik: You have no idea what happens in between the coasts?

Rebecca: I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in the interior of the country. I remember, when I moved back to California as an adult, thinking, “Wow. Some of their coastal streams flow right out onto the beach. This is so different from the extensive salt marsh and sound systems that we have in the southeast.” I remember being in awe of those differences. It was a good recognition that habitats across the world may have a lot of similarities, but they may look and function very differently as well. Not all practices and solutions will work the same in all places. Bouncing around and being in those different geographies helps you stay connected with what’s true at that place where you are.

Nik: There are some readers of this column that actually don’t know a lot about coastal science, including this interviewer. Why aren’t there the big slow, salt marsh type systems in California? What’s the deal?

Rebecca: A lot of it depends on the geology of the system and how it has evolved over time. I would have to go back to my textbooks to give you a finer point on that, but the Reserve System is set up to make sure we’re representing different estuary typologies. Nik, I’m hearing that you need to go on more field trips!

Nik: I go and I see the differences, I just don’t know why the differences. I only recently learned that until plants arose on this planet, rivers mostly ran straight. It was the plants that started holding soil along rivers and slowing them down, and that’s what allowed animal life to arise. The calmer, nursery aspect of rivers and estuaries needed plants first. 

Rebecca: We’re always learning, no matter how old we are, where we are in our career, or what we’re doing.

Nik: Except the Davidson Fellows – they seem to know everything already! 

Rebecca: Smart bunch, aren’t they?

Nik: They’re freakin’ geniuses. It’s like college applicants nowadays need to be CEOs by the time they’re 15. I feel dumb talking to every Davidson Fellow. Was that your goal with helping to establish the program?

Rebecca: To show us up? Maybe that was an underlying tenet. It’s such an impressive group. All the Fellows that I talk to, I’m just in awe. I feel so grateful that they want to work with us in the Reserve System. It feels really exciting for the future of coastal management that these students are going to become our next generation of coastal leaders, which is what the fellowship program is designed for.

Nik: There’s a good portion of the NERRS staffs and certainly the Fellows who have no idea who Margaret Davidson was. How would you describe her?

Rebecca: Margaret was so dynamic and visionary. She had innovative ways in thinking about how coastal management should be done, making sure that communities are engaged, and that you’re working with partners you may not normally be engaged with. She had a reputation for shaking things up and energizing those around her. When we talk about Margaret to potential fellows, we  try to share those characteristics so they can get inspired. Coastal management is hard and it’s only going to get harder. It’s super exciting and fun, and we need people with the same kind of characteristics that Margaret had. 

Nik: I remember her as kind of profane

Rebecca: Oh yes. 

Nik: A strong Texas woman

Rebecca: Yes, very much so. So passionate and it came through every time you spoke with her. She was just all in.

Nik: The Davidson Fellows program was something that you helped push for.

Rebecca: I was very involved in setting up the Davidson Fellowship program, but it was definitely a team effort. I’m grateful to have been the recipient of two fellowships in the early portion of my career and so I know firsthand the value that those experiences provided. On the other side, being a mentor and a host of fellows, I know how exciting it is to work with students, as well as what their energy, passion, and ideas bring to the Reserve to help solve issues. I was really excited to help design the Davidson Fellowship and help get it up and running. It’s just fabulous to see the fellows here with us, doing their thing and having a positive impact through their projects and advancing their careers.

Nik: What are you looking for more of in the program? Where do you think it needs to stretch into more?

Rebecca: We’re in the early days, right? We’re learning. That is the mindset: we’re continuing to strive to do better with each cohort. When we were setting up the fellowship, we wanted to make sure it was not just natural science based, that it was inclusive of all types of science needed for coastal management, including social science. That’s a growth area for the fellowship program and for the Reserve System. A number of us come in with natural science backgrounds. That’s where we feel comfortable. This is an opportunity for social science-based projects as well. We also continue to strive to make sure that the program is accessible to a wide range of students, representing all folks who live and work and play in the United States.

Nik: From the Midwest, for instance?

Rebecca: Exactly! Making sure that the coastal management workforce looks like the population of the United States is a goal of the program. We’re continuing to work on that and grow in that area.

Nik: Well, best of luck with recruitment for Cohort Three. When’s the deadline?

Rebecca: December 4th. 

Nik: Will the current cohort will be coming to the New Jersey annual meeting

Rebecca: It’s such a great opportunity for the fellows, so hopefully there will be a lot of them there. It was really energizing last year to have so many fellows at the annual meeting. It really lightened things up.

Nik: I felt really old. It’s like when I watch the NFL or tennis – everybody is younger than me in professional sports now. They’re no longer heroes. They’re more like kids who are immensely talented. And overpaid. 

Rebecca: That can be quite an adjustment for our personal mindsets. Sometimes I do a double take.

Nik: While I’ve got you, I’ve always meant to ask: the Wells Reserve up here in Maine is encompassed by some portion of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. But I believe one of the 10 sites of the North Carolina Reserve is also the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

Rebecca: Correct. One of our Reserve components is the Rachel Carson Reserve, which is just outside my window here in Beaufort. Rachel Carson worked here on Pivers Island in the late 1930s at the federal lab that was here at the time. She would go out and spend time in the habitats of Town Marsh and Bird Shoal, part of the now Rachel Carson Reserve … Some of the books that she wrote, specifically Under the Sea-Wind, are based on her experiences and observations while she was at what is now the Reserve. That’s why the Reserve here is named in her honor.

Nik: I believe she was in Maine too, but she was farther Down East doing work… she didn’t really walk the land here in Wells. 

Rebecca: We do have the documentation that she walked the habitats of the Reserve, which is really special.

Nik: Meanwhile, we’re just trading on a name. Maybe one of these years, it will be the Rebecca Ellin Reserve, or one of the many other female scientists who make contributions?

Rebecca: I think that would be a little too much attention for me personally. Highlighting the work of other female scientists is always important.

Nik: Let’s keep it at a Talk NERRdy. That’s as big as you get?

Rebecca: Yeah. Also, our work is done by a team, so I would not feel comfortable with that. We’ve got a lot of talented folks on the North Carolina team who are out in the estuary on a regular basis doing the on-the-ground work and getting the job done.

Nik: Would you take a Rebecca Ellin Coastal Management Fellowship? Or how about a boat?

Rebecca: Actually, there is a boat named after me. Well it’s not named after me, but with the same name, different last name spelling, a shrimp trawler that someone came across years ago.

Nik: A shrimp trawler sounds good. It’s humble, yet important and very useful. A workhorse! …ok, sorry, I’ll stop trawling you.

Call for Applications | Margaret A. Davidson Fellowship

The call for applications for the Margaret A. Davidson Fellowship is now open. Here’s a checklist of application materials. There’s an instructional webinar on October 4th; for those who are still able to make it, you can register here. Applications are due December 4, 2023. Please circulate this information to your network!

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