By Claire Babbott-Bryan, Climate Change and Wild Salmon Intern
I’ve been a water nerd my whole life. It began, as it so often does, with the third-grade interdisciplinary river unit. In English class, we wrote poetry personifying the local biota. In art, we crafted ceramic salmon plaques. My favorite was science class, where we learned the salmon life cycle. There was a big incubator situated outside the gymnasium that my teacher filled with pebbles, plants, and fertilized roe. I remember pressing my nose to the glass every time I walked by, looking at the tiny red specks, puzzling about how they could ever turn into the big fish on the poster above.
My water curiosity deepened over time, and eventually I became involved with my local river ecosystem. In 8th grade, I began volunteering as a weekly water quality monitor for the Connecticut River watershed. Although the 6 AM wakeups were sometimes a struggle, I quickly became fascinated by the life cycle of field data itself: How did the water I sampled and sent to the lab become the sign on the fence warning swimmers about unsafe bacteria levels?
This volunteer involvement deepened and diversified in high school. During my junior semester in Leadville, CO, I investigated the impacts of mine-induced water pollution by testing the iron concentrations in local acid mine drainage sites. By my senior year of high school, I joined the Connecticut River Conservancy team as an intern to help process data on E. coli concentrations from over 150 testing sites.
Once I began my undergrad at Middlebury College, I learned to frame my passion in an academic setting and specify my questions through a liberal arts lens. During my freshman year, for example, I curated a podcast about the caddisfly larvae’s interdisciplinary applications. My sophomore year, I rewrote popular songs to form a narrative-based musical album about environmental injustice and contested grounds (“Disturbia” by Rihanna became “Suburbia,” confronting topics of access, race and landscape).
After finishing my second year at Middlebury via remote class, I spent last summer completing a COVID-adapted internship with the Neponset River Watershed Association (NepRWA), a conservation-based nonprofit in South Boston. The most gratifying part was collaborating with Trout Unlimited to launch, execute, and publish a study on the health of the Neponset River’s cold-water streams to save the rare urban brook trout species. We published our report on the NepRWA website and have been using our findings to encourage community education and intentional habitat restoration. This extensive process was an amazing opportunity to engage with each stage of the field data ‘life cycle.’
In the meantime, I spontaneously applied for a fellowship at the Eco-Institute, a small permaculture farm outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and was fortunate to choose to opt away from Middlebury and take a year off from school. During the fall fellowship, my cohort dove into workshops on collective liberation, dynamic activism, and climate justice. We spent large periods working on the farm, honing our homesteading skills, and building community resilience. This experience challenged me to question both the root and impact of my academic and extracurricular interests. It forced me to look outward, beyond the direct work, with clarified accountability and honesty. Who is this work for, and why? After the data completes its life cycle, where are the ripples?
Cook Inletkeeper will be my third internship with a watershed-based environmental nonprofit organization. That said, it hardly feels comparable given the sheer size and beauty of the Cook Inlet Region and the life it sustains! (At NepRWA, we were responsible for 130 sq mi of water, versus Cook Inlet watershed’s 47,000 sq mi). My responsibilities as Climate Change and Wild Salmon intern will focus primarily on collecting field data to better understand salmon habitat protection in a warming climate. Additionally, part of my role will include using this understanding to engage community involvement, and navigate science’s role in the multi-determined and interconnected webs of Alaskan culture, history, and life. Finally, I am excited to help with a variety of Keeper’s other local programs and projects, including salmon-safe farming, the local food hub, and the Drawdown Peatlands project. Communities deserve to set the agenda for their own change and liberation, and Cook Inletkeeper asserts itself as an active leader and resource for the challenge.
As I think back to my wide-eyed third-grade marvel, the gratitude I feel to have this internship opportunity renders it even more necessary for salmon habitats to be protected, prioritized, and restored. For the future water beings (and nerds)!