Ashley Townes is a born communicator. Despite having to navigate the awkward space of a virtual interview made so common by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ashley’s demeanor made it feel like we were chatting over a cup of coffee like old friends.
Ashley is a linguist, a social scientist, a cross-cultural communicator, and most recently, a fisheries scientist. After her undergraduate degrees in International Studies and Japanese at Tufts University, Ashley spent twelve years traveling around the world, working to solve the environmental challenges that were faced by the diverse peoples she met. She obtained her master’s in Sustainable Development and International Education from the School for International Training (SIT) Graduate Institute, during which time she fell in love with the world of fisheries. She is now a PhD Student at the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences (SAFS) at UW.
As someone coming from a path that’s sort of the reverse of Ashley’s (first a biologist, now working to understand the world of social science and policy), I was curious how she navigated the two often disparate fields. These are just some of the lessons she has pulled from her work in policy and science, speaking the languages of both people and fish.
“My background is language. I was a Japanese major as well as a major in International Studies. Then, I continued my master’s in International Education and Sustainable Development. I even worked for the Department of Defense as a linguist right after my master’s for over four years. Until coming over to the natural sciences, social science was my academic make-up. For a while I didn’t know that being a fisheries scientist was a profession, except for maybe on something like a PBS special—it was just not in my world or my context. The impetus of me going back to school and getting my doctorate in fisheries was definitely my experience in Bangladesh.”
Ashley has spent time working on countless international projects, consulting with communities and helping them build sustainable businesses and complete restoration projects. The several months she spent working with a small community of women aquaculturists and agro-pastoralists in Bangladesh was one of the most profound of these experiences (though, she was reluctant to name her favorite among all the amazing communities she’s worked with).
“I had this fantastic opportunity with the School for International Training in Vermont to be a graduate student policy advocacy researcher at the largest NGO (non-governmental organization) in the world, BRAC (Building Resources Across Communities). There were about ten of us working on an ongoing effort with Dr. Jeff Unsicker, and I was assigned a project to work with small-scale women aquaculturists on a fish farm growing tilapia. They had just been awarded an incredible microfinance grant and were working to come together as a community to start a business. Many of them were widows or acid-burn victims. This was a strong network of brilliant minds—brilliant women coming together to support and elevate themselves.
“I was there as a policy advocacy researcher, coming up with goals and strategies to obtain training and workforce development workshops for them and to obtain money for a social safety net—kind of like farmer’s insurance. We wrote an unpublished paper titled, ‘The social safety nets for Bangladesh women farmers and aquaculturists’ that was presented to selected members of the Bangladesh national parliament. The paper helped win their case to obtain social safety nets for themselves.”
Ashley connected with these women right away, and they inspired the next stage in her career:
“It was so enriching and really changed my world. It introduced me to this new field of aquatic sciences. I don’t know if the stars were aligning, but I was hit hard by the ecological process of farming fish. Again, I was there to share best management practices and help come up with tailored maintenance strategies and procedures. But I ended up really falling in love with the science, which was not part of my job! I’ve always had a love for science, and I loved going to aquariums as a young kid, but it was there, working with these women, that gave me this up close and personal view on how in-field scientific techniques can come alive.
“I was just blown away. The women used traditional practices from the Mayans and Aztecs, like crop-switching in different seasons. They were able to understand what sort of crops to grow in which season following the monsoons. They had so much information that they used to their advantage to effectively farm their fish. I just went home, quivering, thinking like, ‘Wait, I have to do this for my life.’ Better late than never, but from that moment I knew I had to go backward to move forward. I had to obtain a doctorate. So here I am at UW.”
“For the past two summers I’ve been going to Bristol Bay, Alaska, researching where sockeye salmon like to spawn on the streamscape on two streams flowing into Little Togiak Lake. These two creeks have been monitored for over twenty years. I am figuring out if there are particular habitat conditions on the lake influencing salmon movement and where they prefer to breed.
“I use the analogy of real estate: what do you look for in a home? Is it the number of rooms in the house or if it has a really awesome basement? Is it the community? With fish, the ‘community’ is about density, or the number of fish around. The other features of their home could be the cobble, the flow of the water, if they’re looking for somewhere deep and cool. My doctoral work involves doing a lot of choice modeling—it’s really about trying to think like a fish.”
I was curious how the transition from Ashley’s social science background into a heavily quantitative PhD program was like and what she had learned from that transition.
“I was nervous entering the natural sciences because I didn’t know the jargon—yet. But I knew I could learn it; I didn’t want that imposter syndrome to sneak up on me. The first few years I worked hard to learn the lingo through my courses and conversations with my advisor and classmates. I wanted to be a great fisheries ecologist and learn what was expected.
“I was adamant about coming to SAFS and moving from the East Coast to Seattle because I knew I lacked quantitative skills and mathematical rigor. SAFS is unique in that it uses the power of mathematics in the world of ecology, biology, and evolution to persuade policy. It’s all complementary; it’s a neural network. I’ve learned that having this background is going to be an extremely important tool for me if I want to connect science and policy. I’m adding another language to my repertoire.
“I’m serving this really neat two-year term with the City of Seattle’s Environmental Justice Committee and I’m the only quantitative person in the room. I’m with all these fantastic minds and community leaders representing NGOs, non-profits, and think tanks, and I am the black sheep in the room—literally. When we advise on management plans, like when to amend air quality standards, I say to them, ‘I see no graphs. Who is going to be in the room when we sit down? How can we speak their language?’ I can guarantee the EJ committee will be presenting these proposals to a bunch of scientists that are white, and they speak in terms of quantifiables. You’ve got to have two to three different languages in your pocket and one of those languages is numbers. To me, that’s a way to increase your political clout, when you can talk in multiple languages to get something done, to see that the air quality standard amendments actually produce the expected change.
“My mother is a mathematician; she was one of the first African American mathematicians to get both a PhD and MBA at the University of Pennsylvania. I never thought I belonged in that crowd. I was drawn to the languages, but now I’m coming full circle. I see that quantitative science is lacking in a lot of these social organizations, and I think it’s absolutely necessary.”
For Ashley, bridging her work in social and natural science comes back to language and her ability to communicate across cultures.
“It’s been hard to straddle those two worlds. I do something I talk about in science communication—I call it code switching. It’s about reading the room and really understanding your audience and their languages. While working in Ecuador, I managed a project that was restoring different parts of the Amazon basin impacted by deforestation. A lot of times I communicated with my team, who were Indigenous peoples, with a lot of roleplay. That’s an art and a methodology for communicating and working across teams and cultures. It’s an antiquated way of communicating or working in diverse teams, but it worked. Having those different linguistic styles in my pocket, in my toolkit, gets me far.
“Working in fisheries, it’s a different kind of communication. I’m very mindful of what room I’m in because there are these different clubs and social identities. Some of these social identities are not valued, or even respected—and it’s hurtful. I knew that I was coming into this kind of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, white man, boys’ club. I knew this was going to be very different. So, I code switch and go, ‘Okay, I have to play the game well and not let discriminatory attitudes shake me.’ I know what I can contribute, I know that people can learn from me as I can learn from them. Being competent in communication, especially intercultural communication, is very helpful in getting through. That and being very intentional about whom I build relationships with.
“I love what I do, though. I feel like I’m on cloud nine every day. The knowledge that is here at UW, the projects, the work, the research—it’s all so renowned. I’m living the dream. Sometimes there are some unnecessary barriers to get through because of the history of fisheries science and academia. So, I try to be intentional about having great people in my corner to help me continue to persevere.”
While “code switching” is a tactic recognized in a variety of scenarios, it is used by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), particularly Black and African American people, to avoid harmful, racially motivated stereotyping and discrimination in white-dominated spaces, and it takes a psychological toll.
To read more about Ashley’s work in community engagement and collective action, check out her website.
Stay tuned for a second installment of this interview, where Ashley talks more about her experience as a Black researcher in a white-dominated field and how she supports BIPOC undergraduate students in their path toward a PhD.