At the time of writing this, we caught up with Lexie Bell, Executive Director of the Morro Bay National Estuary Program, while she was working from home during the 2020 pandemic, managing staff remotely, and sharing internet bandwidth with her husband and kids. Lexie, like the others in her cohort at Bren, graduated at the height of the Great Recession of 2008. The parallels between her job search and that of graduates circa the 2020 pandemic are duly noted. With Bren’s practical business focus and lessons in networking, says Lexie, she was prepared for the workforce, even in uncertain times.
“The Bren approach taught me to enter every situation with research, preparation and curiosity. In preparing for job interviews, I used Bren techniques by practicing interview questions, researching the organization online and through contacts, and approaching the interview as an opportunity to learn more about the mission, people and approach of the organization.”
Before Bren, Lexie had approached her search for a master’s program much the same way. Resource management appealed to her, which is what inspired her to look into graduate schools that could train her for the applied side of science. She was introduced to this idea as a youngster on the beaches of South Florida, where she and her mom participated in a sea turtle monitoring project. Remembering those baby turtles hatching in the sand and waddling down to the water, she says, “It’s where I learned about using science to make management choices.”
She graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in marine science and biology and a sense of direction: “I had had really great research experiences at Miami, including NSF-funded internships, but I decided that academia wasn’t exactly where I wanted to go.
“I was looking at science management-focused graduate schools, and I really liked Bren’s group project approach,” she says. She was offered a travel stipend to come out west and explore Bren and Santa Barbara – a visit that cemented her decision.
Since her first year at Bren, Lexie has been involved with an organization that she was introduced to when her group project team was assigned to work with the San Luis Obispo Science and Ecosystem Alliance to collect and analyze data. “We were looking at the social dimensions of how people perceive the quality of the Morro Bay environment – why people spend time here and how they interact with the environment. We did 400 individual surveys, and I got to know the area and the community.” The summer between her first and second year at Bren, Lexie accepted a paid internship in Morro Bay to collect additional data, which was incorporated into her team’s group project when it started up again in the fall.
That internship and project would eventually open a door to her future job and a way to stay on the west coast. But in order to do so, she needed more life and work experience. She took a summer internship with the Nature Conservancy after graduation, and in the fall was awarded a Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship, a one-year paid position in which fellows are paired with a host in the legislative or executive branch of government located in the Washington, D.C. area.
“I really enjoyed it, but after a year I realized that because D.C. offers so many opportunities, a person can suddenly realize 10 years have gone by. I’m a coastal person, and I wanted to get back to the community where I did my group project, and where I met my future husband. After 12 months, I turned the Knauss Fellowship into a temporary full-time job that I could do remotely. I came back here then started reaching out to people in Morro Bay.”
The Morro Bay National Estuary Program where she now works is part of a network of 28 National Estuary Programs across the nation, providing a dynamic experience between work on the local and national levels. The program focuses on empowering staff, volunteers, and partners to collect high quality data and implement strategic projects that support a clean and healthy bay. "The approach of the Estuary Program is highly collaborative," says Lexie, "which leads to creative and engaging projects as wide-ranging as floodplain restoration, on-water environmental education, suspended sediment monitoring, and more."
She credits networking for discovering the Knauss Fellowship, and for landing a job with the Morro Bay National Estuary Program. “Through the Bren network, I met previous participants in the fellowship I did in DC and these folks were tremendously helpful in preparing me for the selection process and in preparing to move to D.C.”
She says, “I would advise new students to network in a way and setting that works for you, go on a walk with someone you’d like to connect with.” She also credits Career Services with helping her connect with alumni and campus partners who could offer direction.
“I had come to Bren from undergraduate school, while a lot of my classmates had working experience. One of the most valuable things I took away from my education was learning how to work with a diverse team; I got so much from the people I worked with on our group projects. We all brought different skill sets and we learned how to capitalize on strengths and diversity of experience.”
Lexie encourages students to be receptive to a wide range of job opportunities. “Be open and creative. Something might come up that may not be on your ideal list of jobs, but could add to your experience and skill set.” Especially in uncertain times!
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