For former Ketchikan resident JoMarie Alba, next month will bring graduation and the beginning of a new research job with a federal agency as part of a fellowship from the Alaska Sea Grant program.
Alba will research shellfish aquaculture with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration beginning mid-August, just a week after she graduates from Walla Walla University with a master's degree in biology. According to Alaska Sea Grant information, Alba has been focusing her research on changing environmental effects on octopus predation strategies.
In a recent phone interview with the Daily News, Alba described the Alaska Sea Grant fellowship program as "an opportunity for different agencies around the state and recently graduated students to connect with one another."
The program primarily targets Alaska graduate students, Alba said, and aims to match recently graduated students with new research opportunities in a variety of fields.
"The Alaska Sea Grant program is kind of like the body that makes that happen," Alba explained.
Alba said that some work possibilities included positions with the state Department of Fish and Game, the National Parks Service, or, in her case, NOAA.
According to Alaska Sea Grant, the three other 2020 fellows will work with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the National Park Service and the Alaska Sea Grant organization.
Alba was aware of the program even before she decided to pursue a master's degree.
"I became familiar with it because I got my undergraduate (degree) at the University of Alaska Southeast, and as an undergraduate, I kept getting emails about it," she explained. "... And so I just remembered about it, thinking for myself later down the line, (that) if I ever wanted to get a master's degree or a PhD, this fellowship could be something that I did once I finished."
Currently in the process of finishing her last class at Walla Walla University, Alba decided to begin the application process earlier this year.
The application included submitting a personal statement, letters of recommendation, transcripts and other academic materials.
"Once we did that, Alaska Sea Grant compares the candidates and what the program is offering," Alba explained. "And from there they ... set you up with a few different interviews."
Alba participated in three different interviews — all scheduled on the same day earlier this spring – and then waited to hear back from Alaska Sea Grant.
The decision on which programs to place the candidates in was based on statements from the participants about their preferences, as well as what the agencies thought about the candidates.
In April, Alba was offered the chance to complete her fellowship at NOAA's Fisheries Science Center in Juneau.
Fellows are asked to start their new positions between June and September, and Alba is set to report to the fellowship next month.
"Basically, once my school's done, I'm giving myself a week's break, and then I start my fellowship," she said.
During her time at NOAA, Alba will focus on contributing new research to the field of shellfish aquaculture.
About the research topic, Alba said, "To be completely honest, I know very little."
"(NOAA) kind of has this long list of 'Here are the many things you can do, and we want you to pick something,'" Alba explained. "I know, in essence, that I will be doing some sort of research with marine aquaculture. Basically, working with scallops or abalone. I think if I were to do a research project, I would be working with scallops. ... I would do a research project that would contribute to that industry."
Alba also has the opportunity to complete a research project about how to make oyster farming easier for people in Juneau, where she will be based during her time with NOAA.
She also may be presented with the chance to conduct research with kelp or algae.
Although excited to begin her fellowship, Alba didn't always know she wanted to study biology in a research capacity.
She said that the decision was "a build-up of different things."
However, the ocean always fascinated Alba.
"I grew up in Alaska, so growing up in Alaska just made me interested in the ocean," she said. "It's culturally a part of who I am."
"When you’re kid getting to play at the beach all the time," Alba continued. "You just kind of recognize, 'Hey, this is cool.'"
Alba took a long academic break between earning her associate's and bachelor's degrees.
"During that time, I kind of traveled around. At one point, I was in Australia and then I ended up swimming with whale sharks," she said, explaining that it was an inspirational experience.
Her true inspiration to get started in the field of research biology came from working at a national park.
"I think the thing that was like a catalyst to it all was when I ended up working at Yellowstone National Park for a few months," she explained. "And I saw that you could do science as a job and live somewhere real cool, and I kind of thought, 'Wow, this is a lifestyle.' And that kind of opened my eyes."