College of Coastal Georgia hosts inaugural ecological-theme symposium

posted 02/01/2016

By Anna Hall, The Brunswick News

Mary Freund had no idea her simple interest in the environment would turn into a career.

Currently the watershed outreach coordinator for the Satilla Riverkeeper environmental protection agency, Freund found her way to her career after a workshop she attended about water quality while a student at College of Coastal Georgia. From that one event, her interest grew in how her hometown of Woodbine was faring with regard to its rivers and streams.

After reaching out to her professor, Tate Holbrook, at the college, she was paired with Ashby Worley, the Satilla Riverkeeper.

From that connection, Freund started volunteering with Worley, and that eventually turned into an internship, and then a part-time position with the non-profit environmental watchdog organization.

"And then, it went full time. This all would never have happened without that one workshop that sparked my interest in this whole field," Freund said. "Now, I am applying to grad schools to take my career to the next level and really specialize in water quality and helping the environment be and stay healthy. It's a pretty exciting time."

College officials are hoping stories like Freund's become routine in the region, and it took a step toward making that hope a reality Friday with its inaugural Symposium on Coastal Ecology and Management.

During the three-hour symposium, presentations were given from notable regional and national environmental advocates, including Jenessa Kay, who represented the Georgia Living Shoreline Work Group, and Jan Mackinnon and Ben Maher with the Coastal Conservation Coordinator at The Nature Conservancy; biologists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Coastal Resources Division; and Holbrook, who provided a report on "Living Shorelines in Georgia: The Spat Awakens."

A keynote address, "The Georgia Coastal Ecosystems Long Term Ecological Research: Marsh Response to Long-term Change," was delivered by Merryl Alber, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia and the director of the UGA Marine Institute at Sapelo Island. Alber founded the Georgia Coastal Research Council, which serves to bring together coastal managers and academic scientists from around the state.

"The Georgia coast supports diverse and productive ecosystems and provides natural resources of immense economic and cultural value," said Holbrook.

Holbrook, an assistant professor of biology at the college, is working with his conservation biology class to monitor the living shoreline at Cannon's Point Preserve on St. Simons Island.

"As our human population grows, it is important to understand and appreciate the connectedness of our coastal environment and communities, as well as to employ science-based management strategies to protect and sustain them," Holbrook said. "These are goals of the College's Coastal Ecology program that we wish to explore with the broader community through this symposium."

College officials were not only hoping to showcase for students the array of environmental issues plaguing the coastal area and the region as a whole, but also use the event to connect them with opportunities to help turn such situations around by hosting dozens of area agencies that deal with such issues daily.

As the Satilla Riverkeeper, Worley saw a range of students come to her booth after the lectures and she was able to introduce them to the range of volunteer and internship options available from her agency.

"We and all of the organizations present are really here to show students the wide world of ecological study opportunities they have open to them through the college and its partnerships with area agencies," Worley said. "Students can learn a lot from this event, not only that community service and internship options they have, but also they can find new pathways to study, new areas of interest. And for it being the first year, this turnout is great. This is great way to really get the students and these organizations connected and engaged."

Duane Harris, former director of the Coastal Resources Division, attended the event, and echoed Worley's thoughts, saying that the first annual symposium was a hit and will certainly make an impact on students and the community.

Some students, and likewise some community residents, may not be aware of how many coastal resource education and hands-on learning opportunities are offered through the college, Harris said, pointing to the many areas of study the college offers centered on the local environment. Programs offered by the college include Environmental and Regional Studies, Coastal Ecology, Environmental Economics and Management and Fisheries and Aquaculture.

"This event makes these opportunities so approachable," Harris said. "It takes these ideas of being an active part of environmental studies and puts it all in to perspective. Students get to see and meet people who are putting words into actions, and that leaves a strong impression. I'm excited to see what all comes from this one day event."

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