Q&A with James Lee

Four people stand roughly shoulder to shoulder and smiling on the rocky shore of a water body.
Photo provided.
Clinton, WA (July 12, 2018) – The year before I started at SMEA I lived near UW with my boyfriend during the summer while exploring graduate school options. During that exploration phase I helped Cornell University PhD student Olivia Graham (second from left) with eelgrass surveys in Washington State, alongside other student volunteers.

Why did you decide to pursue a Master of Marine Affairs?

About ten years ago I started organizing back in my hometown in the San Francisco Bay Area, working on everything from anti-eviction campaigns to wetland protection campaigns and local election campaigns. When I went back to school some years later to finish my bachelor’s degree, I was excited to be thinking about and working in marine science again, but I was bummed that the policy and advocacy work I was doing had to take a backseat to my education. I wanted to be reading and thinking about both scientific papers and environmental impact statements, and not just one or the other. I thought a degree in Marine Affairs would be a great way to marry my two interests and help me become a more effective scientist and an an effective advocate.


Describe your experience in applying to and selecting a graduate program.

It was pretty straightforward, actually! As I was finishing up my undergraduate degree, I knew I was interested in coming to the Seattle because my boyfriend was already living up here. I also knew I wanted to keep working on the West Coast in coastal, shoreline ecosystems, but I wanted to expand my horizons beyond what I knew, which were the salt marsh and eelgrass beds of the San Francisco Bay Area. I had also fallen in love with the city in 2010, when I visited for the first time and got to know the International District as well as the many dramatic and beautiful parks and green spaces the city had to offer. My P.I. at San Francisco State University, Dr. Kathy Boyer, and another faculty mentor, Dr. Frances Wilkerson, both spoke highly of faculty they knew at UW, and they helped to point me in this direction as well. I ended up only applying to programs at UW when I applied to grad schools.


How did SMEA first come across your radar? What were your impressions of the program?

When I was applying to programs at UW, I was excited by all the marine-related options I was seeing, but I was particularly struck by SMEA. SMEA’s multidisciplinary approach to marine and environmental issues really struck a chord with me, and it seemed like it would be a perfect fit for the kind of work I was interested in. I loved knowing that I would be able to complement the training I’d already gotten in marine research and ecology with classes about policy, climate change, and law.

Floating lumnarias are seen at dusk floating on a calm water body. A shoreline spotted with lights is seen in the distance.
Photo provided.
Seattle, WA (Aug. 6, 2019) – Attending the “From Hiroshima to Hope” remembrance ceremony at Green Lake.

Tell us about your Capstone Project.

Broadly, my capstone project, which I recently completed with two SMEA colleagues, was about shoreline and watershed restoration work in the Green-Duwamish watershed, specifically in South Seattle’s Lower Duwamish River. After spending spring and summer of last year monitoring a

Six people are seen in bright yellow safety vests and hard hats standing, kneeling, or sitting on a wooden pier. The person kneeling closest to the water's edge is the focus of attention for the others in the picture.
Photo provided.
Seattle, WA (Mar. 8, 2020) – Performing a trial run of data collection with capstone colleagues and clients at one of our two field sites in the Lower Duwamish River.

temporary shoreline restoration project in the river, we analyzed the data from that monitoring work and wrote up a technical report that was recently submitted to King County. For our capstone, though, we used our experience with that restoration project, our research into the policy landscape governing restoration of the river, a computer-assisted method that quantifies the feasibility of proposed policies, and interviews with key informants to come up with policy recommendations and two key policy proposals for advancing ecosystem restoration and community health in the Lower Duwamish River.


What has been your favorite class at UW so far? Why?

It’s really hard to pick but one real highlight was Griff’s Winter 2020 class on Indigenous approaches to climate adaptation. We read amazing papers, had great discussions and amazing guest speakers, and spent a day listening and learning at the offices of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in Olympia. Griff’s class, along with the guidance of Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, my advisor, really changed the way I think about and approach ecosystem restoration, and gave me the tools and language I needed to share these approaches and perspectives with others.


Tell us about how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed your SMEA experience. What does a daily routine look like for you?

My daily routine on a school day involves getting up super early, which is something I used to be terrible at pre-pandemic, making coffee, and studying and catching up on readings or other assignments and tasks. I also prep breakfast and lunch in advance on days where I have Zoom meetings back to back and won’t have time to cook during “mealtime hours.” After most of my day’s Zoom meetings are over, I always try to find an hour or two in the afternoon, before the sun starts setting, to go for a long walk with my boyfriend. This was a lot harder to do late in the fall quarter and early in winter quarter when the sun was setting so quickly!

COVID-19 hugely transformed my SMEA experience in several ways. It meant that much of the field work my capstone team and I were hoping to begin last year around March and April had to be put off until June, and even once we were able to go out we had to severely limit our community science program, so we weren’t able to bring in and involve as many people from the South Seattle community as we’d hoped. It also means that I will have had less than two quarters of in-person instruction by the time I graduate in June. I also completed an entire fellowship with Washington Sea Grant online, and as editor-in-chief of Currents, SMEA’s blog, for this academic year, I have never had the chance to hold a Currents meeting in person.

At the same time, there are opportunities I’ve had that would probably not have happened outside of a pandemic. For instance, I’ve had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for FHL 275 (Natural History of the Salish Sea) up at UW’s Friday Harbor Labs Spring quarter, which is something I would not have been able to do if my classes this quarter were being held in person on the Seattle campus. I also have attended so many more seminars, talks, and meetings within SMEA, the College of the Environment, and across the University because it’s much easier to do it from home. Even though it’s difficult to not have the in-person interactions and to know that I’ve missed many opportunities to network and chat more informally, it’s been a lot easier for me to just turn to my laptop and open up Zoom than to, say, wait around on campus for an extra hour or two for a seminar or a meeting when I know it’s getting dark and cold out and that it will take me almost an hour to ride the bus back home where my boyfriend is waiting. I’m really glad SMEA’s Diversity Forum started meeting weekly after the pandemic first hit last year, because it’s been my main avenue of socializing and building community with fellow SMEAples, particularly those I still have not been able to meet in person.

A young man wearing a surgical mask is depicted sitting in front of a scientific microscope.
Photo provided.
Friday Harbor, WA (Apr. 14, 2021) – Setting up the lab space for the week, for the class I’m teaching at Friday Harbor Laboratories.

What assignment, paper, project, or experience has been the most eye-opening for you? Any lightbulb moments in the program so far?

There have been a couple lightbulb moments for sure! In just the first couple weeks of our first quarter, Terrie took us down to the Montlake Cut and gave us readings about the history of the waterway, and how the creation of the Cut and the Ship Canal more broadly led to the lowering of Lake Washington’s waters, the disappearance of the Black River, and mass disruption to the lives of Indigenous people in the area. For me it really kickstarted my interest in the history behind Seattle’s urban ecosystems and the role settler-colonialism has played in creating the environmental problems we continue to grapple with.

I also found the interviews my capstone team and I conducted with key informants really eye-opening. Before those interviews I feel like I understood the importance of community input and engagement in shaping ecosystem restoration and environmental policy, but hearing directly from experts who had deep knowledge of local policy instruments and community needs and priorities really drove that point home for me in a way that readings alone never would have been able to do. The experience has made me all the more convinced of the need for more science to be done in service to and in collaboration with community, particularly as we aim to heal damaged ecosystems and prepare our communities for climate change.

A brownish, grayish moon snail is held in the oustretched palms of a person wearing a navy blue sweatshirt. The moon snail has algae growing on its shell.
Photo provided.
Suquamish Clearwater Casino, Port Madison Indian Reservation (July 12, 2018) – Taking a break during an eelgrass survey to hold a moon snail.

What do you like most about SMEA?

I love SMEA’s multidisciplinary nature, and the opportunity to interact with social and natural scientists who are passionate about marine science as well as Indigenous Knowledges, policy analysis, interviewing, and other ways of knowing outside of traditional STEM areas of focus. I love how open so many people in the program are to making justice an integral part of their approach to their work.


Two young people, one wearing graduation regalia including a mortarboard are seen standing in front of a large projection screen.
Photo provided.
Tiburon, CA (May 22, 2019) – (Undergraduate) Graduation ceremony with a friend at San Francisco State University’s Estuary & Ocean Science Center. I would end up taking my first class as a graduate student a month later.

Who is in your support network while you’re pursuing your MMA?

Besides my boyfriend, the folks in SMEA’s Diversity Forum have been a hugely important support network for me, particularly after everything moved online once the pandemic hit last year. Meeting weekly with like-minded SMEAps in a setting where we could not only talk about serious concerns that were on our mind or changes within SMEA we wanted to create, but also socialize, learn, and build community has been a real anchor for me over the last year and a half.


What environment or ecosystem have you learned about in SMEA that you would like to visit or see first-hand someday?

I would love to explore more of Washington’s rivers once I graduate and I have more time! Before coming to Seattle and to SMEA my training had been was solely in marine and estuarine systems, and I’ve really enjoyed learning more about watersheds and freshwater, riparian ecosystems during my time at SMEA, both through my capstone and through my coursework. I’d also love to visit the Olympic Peninsula, which I have not done yet.

Two bright orange 5 gallon buckets are floating upright on a calm body of water. A relatively flat shoreline with evergreen trees is shown in the background.
Photo provided.
San Juan Island, WA (Apr. 19, 2021) – Collecting sand dollars from Argyle Lagoon, for the class I’m teaching at Friday Harbor Laboratories.

What is your favorite form of marine life and why?

Eelgrass, hands down! Eelgrass is a flowering plant, specifically a type of seagrass, that has adapted to marine environments, so it’s not a type of algae. They only occur in intertidal and shallow subtidal waters, and they look like a forest of gorgeous, jewel-green ribbons when the tide is high enough for them to stand up straight. They can create small pockets of habitat or huge, underwater meadows, and provide a ton of benefits to human and non-human communities alike. I learned how to be a researcher in the eelgrass beds of the San Francisco Bay Area, so they’ll always hold a special meaning for me.