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VIMS launches new Professional Master of Arts program in marine science

Program seeks to help students translate between science and society

William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science has launched its new Professional Master of Arts program, welcoming seven Master of Arts (M.A.) students along with 24 others seeking Master of Science (M.S.) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees in W&M’s School of Marine Science at VIMS.

“We’re thrilled to welcome our inaugural class of M.A. students," says Professor Linda Schaffner, VIMS’ associate dean of academic studies. "Our program will offer them coursework and training for careers in policy, business, outreach, and other areas that require working collaboratively with diverse stakeholders.”

New M.A. student Candice Vinson, the outreach and events coordinator at VIMS, will pursue her capstone project with Kirk Havens. (Photo by Hannah Farmer)Molly Mitchell, a VIMS faculty member and M.A. program director, says the program “is designed to help students translate between what scientists can do and what society needs. It's really important to have students learn the science as well as any M.S. student, but also gain other skills and experiences that allow them to chart an interdisciplinary path.”

Derek Aday, VIMS dean & director, says the new program “is perfectly suited to help students meet the challenges we face in the days and years ahead, ones that require new kinds of partnerships among scientists, economists, lawyers, policymakers, industry, educators, and community stakeholders. The M.A. program is designed to prepare students to thrive in these partnerships and to help find answers the world needs now and in the future.”

Students enroll in the Professional M.A. program for up to two years, first pursuing a curriculum of graduate-level coursework that seeks to ground them in the science of marine and coastal ecosystems, as well as the statistical and numerical skills needed for research and analysis. The students then gain professional experience through internships and a capstone project, while developing skills in areas such as collaboration, communication and leadership.

“The internship offers an opportunity to gain job-related skills and network, while during the capstone project, each student will work with a VIMS faculty member and an external advisor to design and conduct a project that addresses an issue at the boundary between marine science and society,” says Mitchell, who will serve as a general advisor to all seven M.A. students. Faculty at VIMS have a broad range of expertise and can advise in areas such as aquaculture, habitat conservation and restoration, fisheries management, water quality and coastal flooding resiliency.

John Griffin, VIMS’ assistant director for admissions & student affairs, notes that more than 20 students applied to enter this year’s inaugural class.

“The insight and expertise that thrives here in our faculty, centers and programs was a great draw, as it promises our students professional development and networking opportunities for careers that bridge marine science with areas like outreach, policy, law, business, management and nonprofits,” he says.

Enthusiasm from students and alumni
M.A. student Claudia Moncada examines zooplankton under a microscope during the annual new-student field trip to VIMS’ Eastern Shore Laboratory. (Photo by D. Malmquist/VIMS)

Enthusiasm for the Professional M.A. program is clearly evident in remarks from members of the inaugural class as well as VIMS alumni.

Alumna Jill Bieri M.S. ’92., director of The Nature Conservancy’s Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve Program, says, “I'm excited about the MA program at VIMS and the new opportunities it provides—to do a project not so focused on research and to have an external mentor working in another aspect of the field. This degree will really allow people to translate, integrate and apply marine science.”

M.A. student Claudia Moncada, who will work on a capstone outreach project with VIMS Professor Deborah Steinberg, says, “I’m particularly excited about the internship opportunity and the chance to have a mentor outside the academic world. It’ll be an incredibly valuable experience, as I’ll have access to points of view that are both integral to science communication. I’m also excited to take my work at VIMS in a multilingual direction and reach a wider audience.”

Moncada says the program’s main draw “was the amount of effort and love I could see being poured into it before it even began. John and Molly really made me feel welcome during the application process and after, and VIMS seemed like the perfect place to pursue a career in marine science communication while still getting a solid scientific background.”

Moncada would ultimately like to work with a nonprofit or in an informal education setting such as a museum or aquarium.

“I really want to work directly with people to help expand their knowledge of our oceans,” she says, “no matter their age or background.”  

M.A. student Will Shoup adds, “There's a sense of wonder amongst the faculty and staff that makes me feel like the next few years will be very special. This was most apparent during the MA kickoff event, where the faculty, staff and alumni who helped make the program possible said a few words reflecting on their time at VIMS and wished us all luck in the future.”

M.A. student Will Shoup explores a tidal mudflat during the annual new-student field trip to Virginia’s Eastern Shore and VIMS’ Eastern Shore Laboratory. (Photo by J. Griffin/VIMS)The two alumni speakers were Matthew Strickler M.S. '07, secretary of natural and historic resources and chief resilience officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia; and Jacques Oliver M.S. '99, Ph.D. '05, a senior regulatory scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Coming out of my undergraduate institution, I knew I wanted to find a way to weave my marine science knowledge into more applied, day-to-day issues," adds Shoup. "The M.A. program will allow me to do just that—especially through the internship and capstone project.”

Shoup will work on his capstone project with David Rudders, research assistant professor and associate director of the Marine Advisory Program at VIMS.

A third M.A. student, Rachael King, says, “It’s very exciting how moldable the program is to personal interests. The capstone project is more flexible than a traditional thesis, and most course requirements are within a general category rather than a specific class. For me in particular, this allows a heavy focus on science policy, since that’s the career I want to pursue. I also really appreciate the internship, which will allow me to get my foot in the door with a company and gain professional experience in my field of choice.

“I like that the program is both shorter than a traditional master’s program and focused heavily on professional development,” she adds. “More and more jobs in environmental science want you to have a master’s degree, but many master’s programs prepare students to continue in academia. I want to pursue a career in science policy after grad school, so I really appreciate the focus on that in the M.A. program at VIMS.” Advising King’s capstone project are VIMS professors BK Song and Rob Hale.