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Simone Burton facing away from the camera, holding her scuba fins and wearing her decorated grad cap that says "Honorary Mermaid".

A dream that won't be squelched: Protecting marine life and inspiring the next generation

By Tamara Cissna

When Simone Burton sets an idea in motion, she is not easily stopped. Her drive to prove that her “unrealistic" dream of becoming a marine biologist was achievable, for example. Her determination to find the upsides of doing field experiences virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And her decision to enter a field where the challenge to influence human behavior grows more urgent by the day.

Burton, an Honors biology major with an option in marine biology, has pushed through more obstacles than she could have imagined only four years ago. Now, she is confident that she will find a powerful way to protect marine life through a career in conservation, science communication and outreach.

“Yes, I do believe I can make a difference, and that's why I chose marine biology. That’s why I came to Oregon State,” she said.

When pressed, Burton said believes that the same characteristics – passion and determination – that helped her reach other unlikely goals and excel in Oregon State’s marine biology program during a pandemic will propel her to other achievements.

As a middle schooler living in land-locked rural Utah, her dream was to become a marine scientist. That desire would not be squelched by a seventh-grade counselor who said her goal was unrealistic. After he told her to “choose something else” for her career plan, she persuaded her mother to let her attend SeaCamp San Diego, a marine biology camp, the next summer. Two years later, at age 16, she became Open Water scuba certified.

“Yes, I do believe I can make a difference, and that's why I chose marine biology. That’s why I came to Oregon State.”

Those experiences strengthened Burton's resolve to pursue marine conservation. She became even more passionate about addressing the causes and effects of global climate change that impact marine life, and she believes communication is crucial.

“Public outreach and science communication are key to influencing the next generation. That’s where everything starts so that people will choose to change their own actions and to make better consumer choices,” she said.

OSU graduate Simone Burton portrait

Through the Honors program, Burton has analyzed how to effectively communicate science to lay audiences. Her thesis explores which modes of science communication increase knowledge of marine plastic pollution and inspire people to change their plastic use behavior.

“My thesis research supports the idea that if you educate someone on an issue, they're far more likely to act on the solution. You can try to mitigate the problem, but if you don't prevent the problem, you are always going to be mitigating,” she said.

Burton got her first taste of doing lab work during her freshman year after being awarded an Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and the Arts, or URSA Engage, grant. The scholarship enables undergraduate students to pursue research under the guidance of a faculty mentor.

While working under marine biologist Bruce Menge in the internationally recognized Menge Lubchenco Lab, she became even more fascinated with marine ecology. The lab seeks to uncover the ecological consequences of sea star wasting disease for intertidal communities from Oregon to Central California, among other research projects. Burton’s role was to go out in the field to collect samples and process them in the laboratory.

“This gave me my first taste of lab work,” she said. “It was difficult at times because freshmen do the grunt work. But it was also really fun to be in that kind of community. Bruce Menge and his whole lab are like a big family,” she said. “Volunteering in his lab and taking his course through the Hatfield Marine Science Center provided a great education from one of the top people in the field.”

Simone Burton stands in front of Oregon State's memorial Union

Making virtual field experiences count

Burton credits the Menge Lubchenco Lab with helping her win the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship in her sophomore year, an award that provided a two-year scholarship and a 10-week internship at a NOAA facility.

"I definitely gained a different set of skills than I was expecting. And even though I was sad that I didn't get to have an in-person experience, it was still a good experience, and it helped me build invaluable skills."

She chose to work with the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (KBNERR) in Alaska on a project titled, “Different Ways of Knowing,” in which she helped integrate local artistry into the reserve’s science communication. Rather than working at the reserve in person, however, the pandemic forced her to work remotely. While she would not have chosen a virtual experience, she values the learning opportunity.

“I gained skills in virtual event preparation and management, which is a big feat in its own,” she said. “It’s so much more complex than gathering 20 people in a room and giving a presentation. So I definitely gained a different set of skills than I was expecting. And even though I was sad that I didn't get to have an in-person experience, it was still a good experience, and it helped me build invaluable skills. Even after the pandemic, those skills are still going to be needed.”

Another major shift in Burton’s education involved her experiential learning term at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) In the spring of 2020. Each spring, marine biology students take up residence at the HMSC in Newport, Oregon, for a 15-credit course in marine biology and ecology (BI 450), where they divide their time between lectures in the classroom, field study along the coast, and wet laboratories with seawater tables. Out in the field, students learn to observe, identify and collect seaweed and invertebrates, trawl for fish aboard a research vessel, and muck through the mudflats and estuaries.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, this experiential learning term also moved to remote,” Burton said. “That was difficult. But the professors still took us on the field trips. It just needed to be through YouTube videos. And we did all of the lectures and all of the education that we would have done otherwise. Though we didn't get to actually see the organisms in front of us in the wild, it didn’t take away from the educational value.”

“It was challenging, but my peers and I banded together, and the experience strengthened our bond. This was the first Hatfield Marine Science Center course anyone had done remotely – not online, but remotely over Zoom. We were making history in our own way.”

Distance learning during Burton’s senior year was a more normal experience by comparison, as many of her classes were similar in format to classes held on campus. One highlight during her last term is her storytelling internship, mentored by Chris Johns, former editor-in-chief of National Geographic. She is writing a story on toxoplasmosis (“Crazy cat lady syndrome”) in sea otters and how they may receive the parasite through anthropogenic sources. Her interview sources include a representative from the Oregon Coast Aquarium and from UC Davis.

Her love for writing blossomed earlier during her sophomore Honors Science Writing class, in which students write for the online science magazine, Castor. Through the course, Burton authored two feature articles: "Subtropical Sea Urchins: Skeletons in Humanity's Closet," an article about the effects of climate change on subtropical sea urchins' skeletal composition, and "Humanity's Big Shoes May Be Filling With 8 Arms," an article investigating whether or not octopi could have the beginnings of their own civilization.

"I just got a real sense of community from Oregon state. ... It was an environment where people were really helping each other and lifting each other up."

Simone Burton collecting mussles in a bucket along the Oregon coastline

Life after graduation

Next, Burton looks forward to engaging in field work and science communication in marine ecology and biology for a few years to gain a wide exposure in the field before going back to school to earn her graduate degree and specialize in a specific area. She has just recently accepted an education project assistant job at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

"I will be working closely with the public, volunteers and exhibits on marine science. It's an awesome position that will involve science communication, education, and occasionally some handling of the marine organisms. I am very excited to start doing what I love straight out of college!" she said.

Burton's choice to attend Oregon State involved a last-minute shift from her first choice, a university that just felt wrong when she visited in person. After that visit, she applied to Oregon State at a late stage, got accepted and then booked a flight with her mother to visit within days.

“It sounds cheesy, but when I stepped on Oregon State University’s campus, it was just magical,” she said. “I loved it. It was spring, and everything was flowering. I was just totally smitten with the campus. And then, after talking to different people who went through the marine biology program, talking with Honors advisors and listening to the tour guides, I just got a real sense of community from Oregon state.

“It wasn't an environment where people were trying to talk over each other or just climb their way to the top. It was an environment where people were really helping each other and lifting each other up. I really liked it, and the next day I accepted the enrollment offer.”

While her experiences were different than she imagined given changes brought on by COVID-19, Oregon State has lived up to her expectations. “I wouldn't change anything. If I changed one thing, I wouldn't be where I'm at right now,” she said.