Career Q&A: Dr. Melanie D. Harrison ’11, Ph.D., MEES

Published: Jan 3, 2013

Every so often, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they got there. Today, we’re talking with Dr. Melanie D. Harrison ’11, Ph.D., Marine and Estuarine Environmental Science, who works as a water quality specialist with NOAA, and who recently was elected by the membership of the American Geophysical Union, the premier professional organization in the earth sciences, as one of two Early Career Scientists on the AGU Council.

melanie_picName: Dr. Melanie D. Harrison
Current title: Water Quality Specialist
Employer: Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Fisheries

Q: What path brought you to UMBC’s Ph.D. program in Marine, Estuarine, and Environmental Sciences?

A: As an undergraduate at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, NC, I had dreams of becoming a medical doctor. However, I soon realized that I faint at the site of blood and cannot cut a straight line in a stick of butter.  So I quickly began to look for other avenues of interest in the field of science, took a botany course my first year and fell in love with environmental science!

In the summer of 2005, I participated in a National Science Foundation (NSF) program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY, where I met my former doctoral advisor Dr. Peter Groffman.  His personal and professional mentorship led me, in the fall of 2006, to the doctoral program at UMBC focused on Water in the Urban Environment, in the Marine Estuarine and Environmental Science (MEES) Program as an Integrative Research Education Graduate Trainee (IGERT), a program also found by NSF.

Q: What was your experience here like?

A: My first year attending UMBC was a bit of an adjustment for me academically and socially. I quickly found support through close connections with other IGERT students, as well as mentor-mentee support from professors and many of the programs devoted to helping Ph.D.’s complete their doctoral degree at UMBC.  The campus staff provided support for students and I found the diverse learning environment to be complimentary to my personal and academic needs. Throughout my tenure at UMBC, I found the academic rigor and integrity of the university’s academic leaders to be a much needed and welcomed challenge for me. I was motivated and focused on completing my doctorate, I met others who were just as focused as I was, and I loved it!

The research environment at UMBC fosters innovation and collaboration within and outside the university setting, to address real-world environmental issues in the urban environment.  I was able to engage with stakeholders (local and federal) who were interested in the research I was conducting and having that dialogue was imperative to understanding the implications of my research in a real-world context.

Q: What lead you to focus your dissertation on restoration actions in urban watersheds as a strategy to reduce nitrogen loading in urban storm water runoff?

A: As an REU, I spent the summer of 2005 traveling back and forth to Baltimore, conducting research related to reducing nitrogen pollution in urban restored streams, primarily from urban storm water runoff and leaky septic systems for the BES Long-term Ecological Research (LTER). I was amazed at the number of stream restorations that were conducted, but how so few were engineered to resemble a ‘natural’ stream environment. I began to wonder if these systems really were improving water quality and if so by how much; and “were there other features on the landscape such as wetlands that might also play an important role in the nitrogen removal process in urban landscapes”? From then on I was hooked and it seemed a natural progression for me to study urban aquatic ecology. A year later, I returned to UMBC as a doctoral student to study nitrogen removal in urban wetlands and stream ecosystems.

Q: Tell us a little bit about what you do with NOAA Fisheries. What exactly is a “water quality specialist”?

A: In general, a water quality specialist is responsible for safeguarding all aspects of water quality through scientific analysis and the setting of targets and standards in response to specific legislation. At NOAA Fisheries my work is multifaceted; I am involved in regulation and compliance, providing solutions to water quality problems associated with the impacts to listed species, primarily salmon and steelhead, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). My work can vary depending on the water quality issues; for example, I may visit sites of concern, for potential sources of pollution or contamination; identify sources of complaints about discharge operations; provide citizens, planners, emergency managers and other decision makers with technical assistance when necessary; liaison with stakeholders and representatives from regulatory authorities; investigate reasons for lapses in water quality and suggest changes or solutions to those problems; and finally conducting research, data interpretation, and analysis related to water quality and setting up field surveys.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

Working at NOAA is all about Science, Stewardship and Service.  Because my work is very interdisciplinary, I have been able to use my research background to help inform policy, practice and implementation associated with water quality issues as it pertains to the conservation and recovery of ESA listed species. I thoroughly enjoy this aspect of my work as it allows me to have the breadth and depth that I need to effectively communicate at many different levels. My job also, provides a platform for me to continue to conduct research that is applicable to solving real-world environmental problems.

Q: What would you say to students interested in pursuing a career of this sort?

A: Having a career as a water quality specialist may seem like a specialized position, but the work is very interdisplinary and encompasses various fields of science to cultivate the specialty. Of all areas of environmental studies, this area is rapidly developing. It is also one of the most diverse areas in terms of disciplines. My words of advice for students who are interested in pursuing a career in water quality are to (1) always think interdisciplinarily and seek out ways to increase your understanding across and within disciplines to increase your knowledge base, (2) network with others who are in the field, (3) ask questions and capitalize on opportunities (intern, volunteer, collaborations, etc.), and finally (4) keep an open mind about being a specialist; don’t limit your opportunities. The world needs highly adaptable professionals with excellent skills in organization, planning, communication, and critical thinking. Remember, diversity spurs innovation, so be creative and design your own career path.

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Want to tell UMBC alumni about your cool career? Contact Jenny O’Grady at

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