Undergraduate Academic Affairs

June 13, 2019

A watershed moment for inspiration

Bryan Nakata

After witnessing the effects of weather and climate on the fishing industry, Jane Harrell, ’19, knew she wanted to study atmospheric sciences.

In 2013, Jane Harrell brought her two daughters to Ketchikan, Alaska, to reunite with her husband, Mike, on their new fishing boat. It was a risk to purchase it — Mike Harrell had never driven a boat before. Nonetheless, the couple was thrilled to dive into the fishing industry and combine their love of fishing and the outdoors with their entrepreneurial spirit.

Their first challenge came quickly. While on their way home from fishing for king salmon in Neets Bay, just 30 miles north of Ketchikan, Jane noticed the water getting choppy. Before the family had time to react, waves began to lift their 28-foot boat like a bath toy.

Jane Harrell leans against the Jeannie Rose, a 28-foot boat her family purchased to fish in Alaska.

Jane Harrell leans against the Jeannie Rose, a 28-foot boat her family purchased to fish in Alaska.

“I looked back to the bunk and see the girls, and I could see water,” Jane said. “There’s a little window above the bunk — it’s high up on the back of the boat, but the boat was being tossed so far up into the air that water was hitting the window.”

Thanks to her husband’s fast thinking, they made it safely back to an inlet to wait out the storm. When the storm cleared, Jane reflected on her scary, yet inspiring, experience.

“That’s what really brought my awareness to how dynamic and how powerful the atmosphere and ocean system is,” she said. “It was incredibly intriguing.”

What followed was two years of great fishing. In fact, Mike Harrell was able to fish just as well as some of the fishermen who had been at it for years. At the same time, their youngest daughter had just entered kindergarten, enabling Jane to enroll in Tacoma Community College. Everything was going according to plan.

But with the third season came one of the warmest years on record. Mike started hauling in nets covered in algae slime and empty of the precious salmon they needed. Their business crippled.

Back home in Tacoma, Jane was writing a paper about nutrient pollution in the ocean and stumbled across an interesting article introducing her to “the blob.”

The blob was a mass of warm ocean water along the West Coast in 2015; the term was first coined by UW Associate Professor Nick Bond, Washington’s state climatologist. The increased temperatures caused a string of issues, including cold water fish struggling to adapt, warm water fish migrating north, massive seabird die-offs and large algae blooms — the slime on Jane’s husband’s nets.

“I realized that the blob was the culprit for the massive algae bloom that cost us a month of fishing,” Jane said. “And that’s when I decided that I really wanted to focus my studies on climate.”

After seeing how actively professors research their areas of interest, she transferred to the University of Washington to begin studies as an atmospheric sciences major.

“The professors are really friendly and well-connected,“ Jane said. “I realized that if I wanted to do research, all I had to do was reach out.”

It’s not the first time she attempted to earn a four-year college degree, but she’s thankful she waited. If she attended college in her 20s, she says she would have been a business or economics major, different from where her passion lies.

Although it is still challenging to attend school while being a mother of two daughters, she loves being able to do homework together at the table. Her kids seem more interested in school now due to their shared study time, she says.

Jane Harrell sits with her two daughters, Scarlett, 9, and Sydney, 13, on a boulder near the Green River.

Jane Harrell sits with her two daughters, Scarlett, 9, and Sydney, 13, on a boulder near the Green River.

Jane’s research focuses on climate change impacts on hydrology and stream temperatures in the Green River Basin. The river supplies water to thousands of residents in her hometown of Tacoma and habitat to the threatened Puget Sound Chinook salmon. It’s also a major flood risk to the Green River Valley. By helping predict the impacts of climate change, Jane Harrell’s research will provide insights into changes in flood risk for local areas like Kent and Auburn.

Now about to graduate, Jane Harrell is thankful to have attended a school where research is such a priority. As both a McNair Scholar and a Martin Achievement Scholar, she felt fully supported through her academic career.

“It gives me the confidence to pursue maybe more than I would if I didn’t have a support system coming in, which has really helped me reach out and become involved in research.”

She will continue on to graduate school at the University of Washington with the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, where she will study hydrology and climate change impacts with support from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. One day, she hopes to work as a water resource engineer or manager in Washington state to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“The experiences that I gained fishing and witnessing firsthand weather and climate is really what ignited my interest in the atmospheric sciences,” Jane said. “I feel really sure of the educational path that I’ve taken and I’m really excited for where it’s going to lead me.”

Jane Harrell stands near the Green River, where her research focuses.

Jane Harrell stands near the Green River, where her research focuses.


Get connected to research and scholarships

Undergraduate research and scholarship support made a big difference for Jane. Other students wanting to get involved and research and learn what scholarships they’re eligible for should check out the Undergraduate Research Program and Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards. These UAA programs are but two that create and support academic opportunities that have a lasting impact in undergraduates’ lives.


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To support the aspirations and futures of undergraduates like Jane, consider making a gift that helps students get involved in research or scholarship opportunities.