UW News

December 10, 2018

Q&A: New Washington Sea Grant director brings love of learning, experience across sectors

UW News

Russell Callender spent nearly two decades working on coastal science, policy and management issues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s headquarters near Washington, D.C. But throughout his tenure at the nation’s capital, he kept his eye on a position at an organization in the other Washington.

Russell Callender

Russell Callender

When he saw the job posting last summer to lead Washington Sea Grant at the University of Washington, it took Callender all of about two minutes to start working on his application. Callender himself was a Sea Grant Knauss marine policy fellow in 1992 in the Oceanographer of the Navy’s Office in Washington, D.C. and that experience forever changed the course of his career.

Callender began as Washington Sea Grant’s new director this fall, and UW News sat down with him recently to learn more about what he hopes to bring to the organization.

Why did you decide to leave your job with NOAA’s National Ocean Service?

RC: My previous job was incredibly diverse and richly rewarding, because my motivation fundamentally is to make a difference for the planet. But those kinds of jobs are measured in “dog years,” because they are really intense. What I really wanted to do next was find a position where I was closer to the resources I truly care about, and I could actually see the results of my work and my team’s work. I was always impressed with Washington Sea Grant.

Thinking back to your years with NOAA, what are some key takeaways you’re bringing into this new role?

RC: It’s all about people and relationships. In that role, I was able to build trust with key players, including members of Congress, congressional staff, nongovernmental organizations, within NOAA, other agencies and political leadership. One of the things I’m doing here is developing a strategic approach to networking and meeting people in the community.

The other piece I’m bringing here is a passion for diversity, equity and inclusion. I was seen as somebody at NOAA who, frankly, was one of the leaders in that area, even though I’m a Caucasian, middle-aged male. It matters a lot to me personally because I have a disabled daughter, and I see how she doesn’t fit in and isn’t treated fairly. It’s great to see that’s a focus at the UW, and we have an amazing, interesting group of people here who are passionate about it as well.

Do you have a specific accomplishment you are most proud of from your time at NOAA?

RC: There are probably two. The one I’m personally most proud of is we were able to establish in 2017 a new national estuarine research reserve on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, in partnership with the community. It’s an amazing place — literally mountains to reefs.

Secondly, with the thawing of relations with the U.S. and Cuba, we were able to start working  with the Cubans and in 2017 we developed, for the first time in the modern era, a map of the seafloor used for maritime navigation that combines the maps of both countries. This map will really open up commerce and ensure safe shipping. To be able to have those kinds of meetings with Cuban leadership and to put something together that mattered to both countries meant a lot.

What is attractive about this position at Washington Sea Grant?

RC: I’m one of those people who enjoys being a constant learner. So for me, having the ability to learn about new ecosystems and their challenges — and to learn about new coastal communities — intrigues me. I also wanted to have a better connection to the resources I work with. I love the mountains; I’m a longtime climber who has spent the equivalent of years in the mountains. I love the oceans — from a professional perspective, that’s where I have spent my entire career. I love to be on, under and around the water. Coming to a place that has amazing landscapes, seascapes and natural resources that I could work and play in was very, very compelling to me.

What are the strengths of the organization?

RC: I think one of the big strengths of this program is it supports more research than almost any other Sea Grant program. I see us as being that nexus of applied research that can make a difference in the goal of trying to enhance lives and livelihoods, public safety, and marine and coastal conservation. Our outreach programs that take research we support out into the community are also a strength, as well as our communications work that amplifies what we do to an even broader audience.

Are there specific areas where you would like to see Washington Sea Grant improve or grow?

RC: Part of my networking is also data gathering, and understanding the various relationships and challenges, so it’s hard for me to say yet. I do think we need to help deal with major issues related to climate change — coastal hazards, impacts of sea level rise, etc. I think longer term, we’re going to be in that game of helping communities adapt. I think for our kids’ kids, we owe it to them to be able to help them prepare for the challenges we’re seeing today.

How do you expect to use your experiences working across sectors here at UW?

RC: At Washington Sea Grant, we are 28 people with $2.7 million in federal appropriations, and there’s probably about a billion-dollar amount of coastal challenges out there. We can’t do it all as a small Sea Grant program, but we can be a catalyst — a trusted resource that can bring in groups across campus and ensure that we’re coordinated. Then we have more groups, instead of one, pulling in the same direction. Building on the relationships people already have is critical. Before, I was seen as somebody who didn’t care about the logo on your T-shirt; it was all about the resource at stake and the challenges at hand. I want to bring that mindset here, too.

A lot of Sea Grant’s work is in coastal Washington communities, though the organization does outreach on water-quality issues throughout the state. What would you say to residents around Washington about the broader importance of Sea Grant’s work?

RC: Do people eat seafood? Do they go on vacations? People want to go to a place where the environment is clean and the seafood is safe, so being able to preserve habitats that benefit the entire state is important. This state has the largest shellfish aquaculture production of any other state. It’s important to ensure those businesses are given information they need to be sustainable and productive, in harmony with the natural resource they are utilizing. That’s going to benefit people across the state.