DMC director Heather Leslie shares vision for UMaine’s marine lab

Posted:  Sunday, October 22, 2017 - 8:15am
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Heather Leslie recently spoke with communications intern Aliya Uteuova about her first two years as director of the Darling Marine Center (DMC), the University of Maine marine laboratory in Walpole. Leslie talks about the DMC’s first-ever strategic plan; promising collaborations with industry and community groups; projects to benefit Mainers, businesses and ocean ecosystems; and the future. 

AU: Why did you want to be director of the University of Maine Darling Marine Center?

HL: I want to connect people to the ocean through science, teaching and public engagement. Being able to do that through my work at the Darling Marine Center is a great honor and lots of fun. The DMC is one of about a dozen full-service marine labs of its size in the nation; it’s an amazing asset for the state and the university. DMC scientists study a wide array of marine and environmental science topics, including aquaculture and marine fisheries, the ecology of critters ranging from microbes to marine mammals, environmental policy and ocean engineering. We host a year-round scientific community of more than 40 people and we’re deeply connected with the region’s education, fisheries and aquaculture, and community development organizations. My research focuses on human and environmental dimensions of small-scale fisheries. I’m beginning a project that brings together knowledge that’s useful for community-level decision-making about marine resources in the midcoast and eastern Maine. The project is in response to questions and concerns that I’ve heard listening to fishermen and women and other coastal community members throughout the state. I cannot imagine a better place to be than the DMC, as a scientist and as someone who’s passionate about doing what I can to make science more relevant and useful to people’s daily lives. 

AU: Was it a big adjustment, moving back to Maine from Rhode Island?

HL: The Darling Marine Center is a special place. Since we left Maine in 1998, I’ve been trying to figure out how to return. It was surprisingly easy for me and my husband — who both are fortunate to be at the Darling Center as UMaine faculty — and for our children. We’ve found Newcastle to be a very welcoming community and we love Great Salt Bay Community School. Our son asked over a year ago, “Why didn’t we move sooner?” That pretty much sums it up. We all are very happy living in Maine.

AU: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

HL: Thanks to the generosity of many, most notably Ira C. Darling and George Willett, we have a UMaine campus of more than 180 acres in Walpole. Stewarding this property in a strategic and thoughtful way that honors those original gifts and ensures that we continue to develop as one of the nation’s leading marine labs is an exciting challenge. When I arrived, we had a short list of acute infrastructure projects to tackle. Now that we’ve completed those, we’ll begin the first phase of a significant waterfront infrastructure project. It will include replacing our 50-year-old pier, upgrading the lab’s flowing seawater system and renovating the center’s oldest research space, the Flowing Seawater Laboratory. The waterfront project is the first of a series of major infrastructure investments we plan to make in the next decade, to enable the next generation of scientific discovery, education and industry and community partnerships at the DMC.

AU: What are some major accomplishments in the last two years?

HL: As director, I’m most proud of our recently released strategic plan. This is a first for the Darling Marine Center and important as we chart our course for the next decade. To make the most of the center and the strong commitment to marine science and education at UMaine, we will need to focus on our future program and infrastructure investments. To learn more, I encourage people to visit the Darling Center’s website. Securing funding for Phase I of the waterfront investment was another major accomplishment. It definitely was a team effort, one that involved faculty, staff and university leaders in Walpole and Orono. Thanks to a combination of funds from UMaine, the U.S. Economic Development Administration and state marine bond funds, we have the resources we need to make much-needed investments in the waterfront that connects our researchers, students, and community and industry partners to the ocean. I’m also proud of the undergraduate research and engagement training program that I’ve developed in collaboration with colleagues at UMaine and the University of Maine at Machias (UMM). Brian Beal at UMM and I co-founded the SEA (Science for Economic Impact and Application) Fellows Program to encourage students to look beyond the ivory tower. We want to create more opportunities for students and faculty to respond to questions that community members and marine industry professionals are asking, and to practice communicating their findings and why they matter. The program is funded by a National Science Foundation award to Maine EPSCoR at UMaine, the UMS Research Reinvestment Fund, and in-kind support from the DMC and the Downeast Institute, UMM’s marine field station.

AU: What are you looking forward to as you continue this job?

HL: I’m excited to wrap up our strategic planning and to get to work on implementation. That will mean the design of new and renovated facilities, construction, program development and, of course, more conversations with our neighbors as programs and infrastructure develops. We want to ensure we’re as well aligned with community interests as we can be and that we’re contributing to the health of coastal communities and the marine economy throughout Maine and beyond. I’m also looking forward to continuing to tell the stories of the scientists and students who call the DMC home. The students are particularly inspiring to me — from the third-graders who grow oysters with us every year to the international exchange students who first experience American university life through Semester by the Sea at the Darling Center. Sharing these students’ experiences is important. The science of the oceans is ultimately about people, the thrill of discovery, the challenges of failure and the promise and payoff of learning and sharing knowledge in ways that benefit our neighbors and the broader world. To tell those stories, we need to understand scientists as people.

AU: What will the DMC be like in five and 10 years?

HL: In five years, we will have a revitalized waterfront. That will mean that our capacity to connect people to the ocean for research, education and marine business incubation will be even stronger than it is today. In 10 years, we hopefully will have built a new Marine Science Education Center. This facility will catalyze the research, education and business development critical to Maine’s coastal communities, as well as support K–12 programs, university and professional-level courses and citizen science.

AU: Speaking of Maine’s coastal communities, how will the DMC continue to benefit Maine people, communities, ocean ecosystems and the economy of the state?

HL: I am optimistic about the future of Maine’s marine economy and I’m committed to doing whatever I can as a leader at UMaine to help support our coastal communities and the many businesses in our state that depend on healthy ocean ecosystems. At the Darling Marine Center we have more than 50 years of experience working closely with shellfish farmers and commercial fishers. Our business incubation facility has hosted nine companies over the last decade, and enabled development of many new valued-added marine products — including new types and ways of growing shellfish, seaweed and finfish, specifically eels. I expect that commitment to research-industry partnerships to deepen in the coming decade. In particular, I see great potential for UMaine to be responsive to Maine’s marine workforce development needs. For that reason, I co-founded the Alliance for Maine’s Marine Economy, a collaboration of more than 25 public and private institutions, including research institutions; commercial fishing and aquaculture interests; community-based organizations; and marine businesses. Our purpose is to ensure that Maine seafood, fishing and aquaculture industries, and the ecosystems on which they depend, are healthy and benefit Maine people.

AU: Have you had opportunities to talk with community members about the Darling Marine Center?

HL: Yes, I have. Talking with community members is one of the best parts of my job. I always learn something new — such as what interests others about the work we do and other people’s connections to the campus and Ira Darling, in particular. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with boards of selectmen throughout the peninsula, and to present our vision for the future to local economic development groups, including at the Twin Villages Business Forum recently in Damariscotta. I’m looking forward to continuing these discussions; it’s clear there are a number of ways that UMaine and DMC programs could be further developed to meet local interests and needs.

Aliya Uteuova was the summer 2017 communications intern at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, thanks to support from Maine Sea Grant. She is a University of Maine senior studying journalism and political science and she’s culture editor of the UMaine newspaper, the Maine Campus.