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Graduate Student in the Spotlight: Karly Miller, Fulbright Scholar, Shows the Power of Listening

Karly MillerKarly Miller at Big Sur. Photo courtesy of Karly MillerThird-year marine science doctoral candidate Karly Miller has wanted to study the ocean for as long as she can remember.

Her desire to learn more about the ocean led her across the globe to places as far flung as New Zealand, Ecuador, and Peru. She went on to be selected to represent the United States as a Fulbright Scholar for the 2015-2016 academic year, studying the interactions between tourism and artesenal fisheries in Bahia Malaga on the Pacific Coast of Colombia.

Reading about her passion to study the ocean, you might have guessed Karly grew up in Hawaii, California, or another coastal habitat. But you would be wrong. She grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. To make up for the lack of an ocean front view in Ohio, she started diving in quarries as a teenager. By 18, she had become a divemaster, and at age 20 she was certified as an Open Water Scuba Instructor

GradKarly's journey to study the ocean really started when she won a McNair scholarship and attended the University of South Carolina, where she earned a B.S. in Marine Science and a minor in Environmental Studies and Spanish in 2009. While there, she did a summer abroad in Ecuador and a semester in New Zealand. Later, she earned a certificate studying Geography and the Environment at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru in 2011.

I met Karly at the Coral Tree Café to talk about her life as a graduate student and her research as a Fulbright scholar. We sat outside and she told me about the book that changed the way she thought about the oceans, the importance of listening, and also about how she ended up as a summer Wildfire Education & Prevention Corps Volunteer in North Dakota.

Isla PalmaIsla Palma, Bahía Málaga, Colombia. Karly's favorite escape in the field. Photo Credit Karly Miller

Let’s start with your research. What are you doing exactly?

I study how tourism development affects the social and ecological importance of fisheries in coastal subsistence-based communities. People and the environment are inextricably linked and I’m interested in studying how changes in the community and development affect these relationships in coastal settings.

Karly in FloridaOhio natives, Karly Miller, left, and her sister, Lindsay, in Florida where they first saw the ocean. Photo courtesy of Karly Miller

How do you end up studying something like that?

When I was 12, I started reading “Song for the Blue Ocean” by Carl Safina. That book really opened my eyes and motivated me to study the ocean. When I was younger I went through different phases of what about the ocean I wanted to study, but after reading that book it felt more important to me. I still wanted to be a marine scientist but I wanted my work to help influence marine conservation. 

In college I expected to show up, work hard, and become a marine scientist – but I didn’t realize I’d have to decide what sort of marine scientist. So I studied a lot of different things throughout my degree, from chemical oceanography to fisheries policy and education outreach. 

When I finished my degree I was still committed to marine conservation, but felt somewhat torn about the path forward. I felt like so much of the dialogue in marine conservation made people the problem in a very binary way ... assuming that to protect the ocean we need to remove people. While pollution and overfishing are the result of people, people are also a part of the ocean and depend on it for their well-being. So that set me on a path to look for a way to integrate marine conservation and social development.

EstuaryMangrove estuary in Bahia Malaga. Credit: Karly Miller

Let’s talk about your Fulbright. Tell me more how you came to choose Bahia Malaga on the Pacific Coast of Colombia to study?

Last summer I was a little burnt out and struggling to sort out the best path forward with my research – so I decided to take a break and go to Colombia. My plan was to try not to worry about work while I was there. I didn’t make many plans, but knew I wanted to visit the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and decided to head to the Pacific first. Looking at a map, there are just two roads that reach the coast, and it's all deep green – you have to look hard to see signs of people. I didn’t know where I was going really, but ended up in the towns around Bahía Málaga, where there is a developing tourism economy that exists alongside traditional fishing and farming practices. 

I managed not to think about work but couldn’t help my curiosity and fascination. I traveled a bit more in Colombia but pretty quickly returned to spend the rest of my trip learning (and relaxing). This gave me enough to go on so that once I got back to Santa Barbara I was able to merge my existing research with the questions that arose while in Colombia. I didn’t have much time before the Fulbright deadline but I was able to get all the pieces together and that really kicked off the development of my proposal and research plans. Since then I’ve been back to Colombia twice, and I had actually just arrived to Colombia when I got the good news about the Fulbright. 

Karly as volunteerKarly Miller doing volunteer work in Peru. Photo courtesy of Karly MillerHow will you be representing the U.S.? You have had some previous experience as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.

Yes, before I came back to grad school I was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Lima, Peru. My official duties were to go to attend a university, give presentations about my life in the U.S. to local Rotary Clubs, and to work with them in their service projects. We had day-long health clinics and distributed water filters in the poorest neighborhoods of Lima that are still without many of the basic public services. I worked with children’s homes and the elderly, and participated in community events. 

These were an important part of my time in Peru, but I think the most important thing I was able to do as a Rotary Ambassador was to build relationships, and to listen. Being from the U.S., people already know all about our music and our movies, about our food and our politics. The U.S. has a reputation of power and arrogance and so to show up and listen, to be humble and to learn, to be human and make mistakes, laugh at myself, and try again – that was the most important thing I think I could do while I was there. 

Ladrilleros, ColombiaRainy day in Ladrilleros, Colombia. This is where Karly will be living while doing field work. They get up to 314 inches of rain a year! Photo courtesy of Karly MillerThis will be true in Colombia, too. We work hard to try to become experts in what we do, and I would love to think that I have something to offer these communities, but I am there to learn from them. 

For all the years that I’ve studied the oceans, Colombians know much more than I do about their environment, and about their community. So I will go and listen, learn, and I hope to take some of what they know and make it available to the world, in publications. I want to help strengthen their voice and the management of their resources.

So how did you end up a Wildfire Education & Prevention Corps Volunteer one summer? That’s a far cry from Marine Science.

After my first year of undergrad, I was thinking about the best way to spend the summer and I heard about the Student Conservation Association – a volunteer program where students do conservation work somewhere in the United States. There were hundreds of positions available and somehow I wound up with an offer to be part of a wildfire prevention corps – in North Dakota, essentially the geographical center of the continent. 

It seemed the opposite direction from my studies, but I decided to go for it since I knew my career would keep me coastal. Through this position I learned about wildfire management, got to work on Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, and explored a part of the country I would otherwise know nothing about.

So, let’s talk about your graduate school life. What do you do to have fun?

Mostly I like to spend time with people and to be outside. In Santa Barbara I like being with friends and paddleboarding, scuba diving, hiking, or walking the Bluffs in Ellwood. I also like to explore new places and get to know new people while traveling. I started traveling alone years ago because I couldn’t find anyone to go with me and now I really enjoy it.

I’ve traveled mostly in Central and South America, but also once to Europe. I like walking around in old cities, but I mostly enjoy seeing the landscape. I’ve come to really appreciate the long bus rides for this reason; there isn’t ever enough time to see all the places I’d like to stop, but by bus you can at least watch as they pass by through the window.

Any advice would you give to an incoming graduate student?

Karly Miller, middle, with the love and support of her sisters. Photo courtesy of Karly MillerThere is no right answer; doing a Ph.D. is a lot about finding a path where there isn't one, and that means everyone will see things just a little differently. This is the beauty and uniqueness of thinking about new problems, and the challenge and benefit of working with others.

I've been surprised at how much I feel like I just have to figure things out on my own – and yet I couldn't actually do any of this alone. Anyone's success is the product of the whole system – not just their advisors but also their peers, students, administrators, and staff – and not just within the academic system.

The importance of a personal support network is way overlooked, I think. I'd bet almost no one would get a Ph.D. without the love, support, and patience of friends, family, and partners. 

What do you hope to be doing after graduate school?

I would like to be a professor, so that I can teach and connect with the world through individual students, as well as to continue research with the hope of contributing to the larger intellectual world.

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