World Salmon Council

Volunteer Spotlight: Shivonne Nesbit Talks Salmon and STEM Empowerment

Volunteer Spotlight: Shivonne Nesbit Talks Salmon and STEM Empowerment

Shivonne Nesbit is Acting Assistant Branch Chief with the Portland Branch of NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, as well as a Fish Biologist/ESA Permit Specialist with the NOAA Protected Resources Division. Shivonne also serves as President of the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.

How did you gain your interest in science and biology, and how did that interest lead to your chosen career path?

I grew up on a lake in eastern Canada. Growing up in a lake ecosystem, I was always connected with water, seasons, and ecological changes. As a kid, you don’t usually think about these connections. But we always swam in the summertime and built forts on islands, and in the winter we’d ice skate and you could look and see all the vegetation and fish under the ice.  I think growing up so connected to nature is how I became interested in science and biology. I spent pretty much all my time outside. We didn’t have a TV or electronic gadgets, so the outdoors was our playground and our best toys.

How and why did you get involved in Salmon Watch?

Throughout my career as a biologist, I’ve always been involved as a volunteer with outdoor education. When I moved to Portland, one of my colleagues with the US Fish & Wildlife Service told me about Salmon Watch. So, I got involved as soon as I moved to this area in 2010.

The reason why I got involved is, for me, being out in the field with middle and high school students is a total recharge. It reminds me why I do what I do. It reminds me why I got into this field, which is the feeling of curiosity, realizing you can solve problems using critical thinking, and the feeling of being in awe of nature. To see students connecting with nature is why I do it. It reminds me of that early experience of curiosity and awe, and reminds me why I do what I do.

What are the benefits of outdoor education programs like Salmon Watch, and why are these programs are so important today?

The greatest benefit is getting students outside and connecting them with nature. On my Salmon Watch trips, I’ll ask the students how many of them have spent time on rivers, and it’s always amazing to me how few of them raise their hands. So, for many of them, this is the only time they spend out on the river.

Getting outside and learning about the life cycle of salmon really impacts students. Students have heard about the salmon life cycle in the classroom. But when they are standing on the riverbank and they can see adult fish spawning, and they see the salmon redds, and when they think about the journey these fish have made, I think that really grabs the students.  The salmon journey is an amazing story of our ecosystem.

I always tell students that they’re the smolts. I think it’s important that students understand that they are part of the ecosystem, and that they don’t exist independently of the salmon. I hope they’ll take with them that the decisions they make and what they do impacts ecosystems, landscapes, and other species. We’re all connected.

What are some challenges and rewards you’ve experienced as a woman working in a STEM field?

Early on in my career, my position as a woman in a STEM field wasn’t something I often thought about. There were certainly differences in the numbers of each gender working on field crews, but it wasn’t something that occurred to me much.

I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I was about mid-career, when I’d be sitting in meetings and my female colleagues and I would all do the same thing: the head count. How many men to women? Sometimes it would be ten men to one woman, sometimes four to one. I became more aware of it when I transitioned from being a field biologist to the management realm. I became aware that I was now a minority.

I think there’s a lot of power in that. Our diversity makes us better. The teams I sit on and the groups I facilitate function better with a diversity of perspectives and people. That comes from gender diversity, ethnic diversity, socioeconomic diversity, where you’re from, what sort of academic and work background you have, whether you’re a fish biologist or a forester, etc. Our differences are what make us stronger. There’s a lot of power in working towards a workforce that’s more reflective of our demographics as a society.

What words of advice or encouragement would you offer young women who might be interested in pursuing STEM-related careers?

I would tell any young woman, “Do it!” Don’t be intimidated. Everybody has a voice, and every idea matters. For me, sitting in a room with ten men, there have been times I was quiet when I shouldn’t have been. And it was because I let myself be intimidated by the level of expertise, or the number of PhD’s, or whatever else in that room made me feel as if I didn’t have a voice. But don’t let yourself be intimidated. Do it.

Do you think experiences like Salmon Watch help students who would be demographic minorities in STEM fields become empowered to pursue careers in those fields?

Absolutely. I’ve been spending a lot of time with students of different backgrounds, focusing on diversity and inclusion in my work, in my paid job and my officer role with the American Fisheries Society. One thing that is very clear to me is that for young people to become interested in STEM fields, they have to have some sort of exposure.

So, I think where Salmon Watch is so crucial is providing that exposure at the right ages. I tell a lot of students that had I known there were jobs like mine when I was finishing high school, I would have saved myself a lot of money in college. It wasn’t until I was partly into my college degree that I realized there were jobs working outside, and that I could study natural resource science.

Salmon Watch provides that exposure to students when they’re starting to decide what classes they want to take, what college degree they want to pursue. They become aware that there are jobs outside that they might be interested in but weren’t previously aware of or didn’t know how they’d plan a career path.

What is your favorite part of volunteering with Salmon Watch?

My favorite part is learning from the students. Every time I go out on a field trip, a student will tell me something I don’t already know, or ask me a question that stumps me. And I go home and look it up and learn something new. It’s a two-way interaction. It’s not just me teaching them. I learn from the way they think through problems and they questions they ask me.  My favorite part is when they stump me.

Also, I love seeing their faces light up. I love watching them use critical thinking. I love watching them come up with questions and answer the questions, and seeing their faces light up when they have that “aha!” moment. It’s so inspiring to see young minds excited about learning new things, excited about figuring things out for themselves.

You’re a longtime volunteer with Salmon Watch, and also one of our volunteer trainers. If you were to tell people why they should get involved with Salmon Watch, what would you say?

I would say that as scientists, resource managers, researchers, whatever it is we do in our careers, we need to do more with education. We need to connect more students with salmon and ecosystems, and show them why it’s important for everyone to care. I think a lot of scientists and professionals in the natural resource fields get that.

If we’re going to continue to fund our programs and have legislative support, people need to be connected to nature and understand why the work we do is so important.

Salmon Watch is such a great way to educate and reach so many students. Each student goes home and tells his or her siblings and parents about the program. It’s a wide-reaching program. And we need to do more than just our jobs; we need to play a role in education.