Jessica Gray

Biogeochemical Oceanography M.S. '22
Jessica measuring seawater nutrient content in the Letscher analytical chemistry wet laboratory at UNH.
Alumni Spotlight Q & A:

Where are you from, Jessica? 

I was born and raised in Freeport, Maine.

What was your major and who was your adviser?

I entered UNH in the fall of '17 as an undergraduate student studying Biology. It wasn’t until I took the Intro to Oceanography class that I realized I was fascinated with the way in which the physical and chemical components of the ocean interact with marine critters, particularly the autotrophic phytoplankton comprising the foundation of the marine ecosystem’s food chain. So I switched to the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences to study Earth Sciences (Oceanography track) and was assigned Joel Johnson as an academic adviser.

I was eager to get involved in research, so at the end of my freshman year of undergrad, I ended up reaching out to Dr. Robert Letscher who, at the time, was new to UNH as well. He served as my research adviser throughout the rest of my undergraduate education and somehow convinced me (although it didn’t take much convincing) to graduate from undergrad in quarantine in Honolulu, HI in May of '21. I was invited to work on a research cruise aboard the R/V Kilo Moana during the summer of '21 and at the time was planning on attending Scripps Institution of Oceanography to pursue a M.S. degree in Chemical Oceanography.

However, during my time at sea, I grew passionate about the work that I was doing studying nutrient cycling within the sunlit waters of the oligotrophic North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. While at sea, Dr. Letscher offered me a position to continue working under a Research Assistantship at UNH and continue my education there. I decided (quite last minute) that this didn’t sound bad, and I had already gotten a head start collecting the majority of my data so I could hit the ground running with data analysis in the fall! So upon returning home from sea, I began working towards a M.S. in (biogeochemical) Oceanography. I was able to complete this degree in three semesters, successfully defending my thesis in November and officially graduating in December of 2022.

Why did you choose UNH?

Looking back at why I originally choose UNH is funny. I remember having driven down to Northeastern, in the “big” city of Boston, with my mom and older sister. Coming from the little town of Freeport (~8,000 residents), I laugh at the image that comes to my head of how wide my eyes probably were and how intimidated I was. I drove down there in person to meet with a professor, I think he taught Marine Biology at the time. I have always had a love for research, and I was eager to actively become involved as soon as I got to college. I remember practicing exactly what I wanted to say to this Northeastern professor and expressing my earnest interest in working within a marine biology laboratory. When the time finally came to meet, he laughed and apologized because of the “misunderstanding,” he thought that I was inquiring about a graduate school position – there were no opportunities for undergraduates to work in research labs at Northeastern! He told me to enjoy college life and come back in a few years. I was so disheartened I left the campus without even doing the tour.

And it was on the way back home to Maine that my sister exclaimed it was accepted students day at UNH! I hadn’t even remembered that I applied to UNH, truthfully, but my mom insisted we make use of our trip south and check it out. During the tour we wandered into the old Spaulding building and past an office with the door left open that looked as if it were out of a movie. The books and creatures and knick-knacks and tools he had lying around and set in the most odd but yet perfect places left me fascinated. After the tour, I came back to that office and inside sat Dr. Larry Harris, a marine invertebrate biologist, and my very first (soon-to-be) research advisor. He laughed when I sheepishly explained to him my experience at Northeastern, and then ventured into the opportunities for research across all levels at UNH. He even told me about a week-long freshman opportunity to conduct a field-based research project on Appledore Island in the Isle of Shoals the week before move in. I left this meeting starry-eyed, and made my decision to attend UNH, class of 2021, by the time I got home.

Row of color photos of alumni in action.

What were your favorite courses and which professors had the greatest impact on you?

One of my favorite courses was Fate and Transport taught by Dr. Anne Lightbody. This is by no means because it was an easy class, in fact, this was the hardest course I think I took at UNH, but it was also the course that I learned the most from. I signed up for this upper-level class sophomore year, because I was bound and determined to study abroad for the entirety of my junior year. After having conquered my freshman year introductory classes, I may have gotten a little bit confident in my abilities to manage social relationships, classes, and my own mental/emotional wellbeing because this was right about the time that academic anxiety began to set in.

I remember sitting down to take the first assessment in Dr. Lightbody’s class and completely freezing up. I couldn’t think or focus and spent the rest of the allotted time sinking in a pool of anxiety rather than answering any of the questions. I failed the assessment. The first 'F' I had ever received. I remember sitting down with Dr. Lightbody and confessing this to her and I was mortified! But she listened and understood in a way that I never would have expected her to. She didn’t offer to let me retake it, or give me something to do for extra credit, but instead she spoke to me about academic anxiety and ways to deal with the very common issue of test-taking anxiety. She assured me the way her course was designed accounted for the fact that it is hard and bad grades happen. We connected in a way that resonated with me, and I ended up working on a short project for her over winter break that year analyzing water quality data from a local lake and creating user-friendly educational deliverables for the lake assessment program.

What was student life like? What did you think of the campus and extracurricular activities?

Student life at UNH was just plain fun! It felt as though there was a place for everyone and endless opportunities to meet new people. The town of Durham felt like the town of UNH, and I loved being able to walk around and know no one, but the excitement when you would bump into someone that you did know on campus. Freshman year, I met my forever friends on the tenth floor of Christenson Hall. We got locked out of our rooms together in our shower towels, we came down with mono together, we got spoken to for playing our music too loud… the list goes on! But we lived the ultimate freshman year. What was cool was I was one of two girls who did not rush a sorority. I thought this was going to be totally ostracizing but my friends and I actually grew closer because of it. They would come home and talk to me about their rush experience and I would talk to them about my lab work and we would get to say things to each other that we wouldn’t say to the people in our respective circles. I was introduced to sorority events and outings through them that I actually ended up meeting more friends through!

I also got involved with intramural soccer which was some of the most fun I had at UNH. I played pickup basketball with my guy friends at the gym. I was a member of the sustainable fisheries and aquaculture club. During Intro Chemistry I met a member of the Cat Pack Pep Rally band who showed me the piano practice rooms in PCAC that I would go to sit down and play in when I needed a study break. There was always something to do and someone to do it with at UNH and I will never forgot the fun that I had during my time there.  

What was the biggest transitional issue you faced when you started at UNH? 

After deciding to attend graduate school at UNH instead of heading out to the West Coast, I didn’t factor into my decision the fact that this place that I grew to call home with my close group of friends would now be home on my own again. I felt like an empty nester almost, going back to my daily routine, just without my friends to come home to at the end of the day or to go out to grab drinks with at the end of a long week. This made the transition from undergrad to grad school pretty difficult and sometimes lonely. However, I did end up making a handful of great friends because I was pushed outside of my comfort zone, away from the people I naturally gravitated towards. In fact, unlike any of my friends from undergrad, these friends were directly involved in similar research to me and we were actually able to hang out and talk about science things together! 

"I hope to help the way science is communicated, to make research matter for policy decisions, to spark interest in published work and invoke conversation amongst stakeholder groups. I want to bridge the gap between science and society in a world where the divide has become all too accepted."

What is your current position and what does your day-to-day work look like? Why is your work important?

Currently I am working on a temporary project with the National Atmospheric and Space Administration (NASA) as a member of the DEVELOP team at the Boston node. I certainly revisited that wide-eyed, overwhelmed feeling of dropping into the city life, but I have come to embrace the crowded MBTA rides to and from the office and working a 9–5 job. At NASA, my goal is to enhance the way we communicate science. I have found that all too often the most intelligent people fail to effectively communicate their research. It is natural, as we delve deeper and deeper into our specialized fields that highly technical jargon transforms into a common language that is not understood by general audiences, particularly those who we hope to inspire most! So, I have joined a team collaborating with a partner organization to use NASA’s geospatial Earth Observational data to create impactful deliverables at various scales of scientific understanding. Specifically, the project I am working on seeks to address land use/land change model simulations to predict future urban development scenarios and identify emerging risks these expansions pose for keystone species’ habitat in the New England coastal regions.

As I transition out of the world of academia into the industry, I am particularly interested in exploring the way stakeholders and policymakers actually consume the information that the scientific community is presenting and diagnosing trends in successful delivery and implementation strategies related to this research. Thus far, I have developed an incredible appreciation and understanding for the scientific process, and will always be eager and passionate about exploring environmental- and sustainability-focused research questions. But with this interest and experience comes proportionate passion for effectively reaching end users and target audiences.

How did UNH contribute to your career and where you are now?

At UNH I took two courses in remote sensing with Dr. Mike Palace, an incredibly intelligent individual with a passion for collecting and utilizing GIS and remotely sensed data to study Earth and environmental systems. His classes provided a foundational framework for skills within GIS software packages that have supported my endeavors today with NASA’s DEVELOP program.

When I first started this job, I was eager to put the concepts I learned in class to use working directly with NASA’s Earth Observation data and gain more comfortability using software applications to explore geospatial data. After just three weeks, my eyes have opened to just how vast the world of remote sensing is and the capabilities it holds. I see the power in using remote sensing data to better understand our planet’s socioeconomic problems and visually portray these issues. With its impressive array of applications though, comes an equally impressive distribution of technical skills. This is where UNH and Dr. Palace helped prepare me to enter into a professional project with the skills and knowledge needed to excel. I feel so lucky to have been part of such an interdisciplinary department, working cohesively with faculty and students from a wide assortment of backgrounds to learn from each other.

Looking back on your time spent as a UNH grad student, what are some of your best memories? 

Some of my best memories as a graduate student were the times we spent not knowing the answers to problems or questions, and being able to walk into a professor or researcher’s office and sit down and talk things out. My professors were all so open and welcoming to questions, and again, I can’t emphasize enough, asking questions is why I am where I am today. Sometimes not knowing holds more power than being the all-knowing. 

How is UNH addressing the social cause you are most passionate about?

UNH holds an annual event called Ocean Discovery Day, which I got to volunteer at with the Letscher Lab Group booth, and I found it to be one of the most inspiring, educational, and fun-filled days of the school year. Usually held at the somewhat hidden Chase Ocean Engineering building, it was a great chance for marine STEM faculty, students, and staff to show off their research in an attention-grabbing, easygoing way! Students of all ages (including K-12) were usually bopping around to learn about ocean-related science! It always me happy to see this community outreach within a field that can sometimes get bogged down by heavily technical aspects.

During the years I spent with the sustainable fisheries and aquaculture club, we made an initiative to work with the dining halls to purchase and serve only sustainably-ranked seafood as a University. This was empowering as a student to know that it was possible to have a say in certain aspects of UNH life and know that my voice was heard amongst the sea of nearly 16,000 students. 

Any advice for undergrads/grad students who are conducting research?

Ask as many questions as you can and actively listen to responses. It’s okay to not be the smartest person in the room, no matter what you come from. There is always, always something to learn from someone else! I love asking questions sometimes just to see the way people think! It will help your creative energy continue to flow in a field that sometimes can feel structured or rigid.

What can be improved so that other students conducting research have an improved experience? 

I would say emphasize supporting one another academically as much as possible. Attend poster sessions, research conferences, or presentations of any sort. Be there for one another to check in or simply update each other on where you’re at in your research. There is no room for being shy in research, I think this only closes doors for both you and your peers/cohort. 

What impact do you hope your work has on future generations?

I hope to help the way science is communicated, to make research matter for policy decisions, to spark interest in published work and invoke conversation amongst stakeholder groups. I want to bridge the gap between science and society in a world where the divide has become all too accepted. The climate crisis cannot be a political debate and I truly believe that our failure as a society to work together to address such an imminent issue centers around the fact that our communication skills are lacking profusely. 

I have two articles published with the Inquiry Journal:



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