The Leaders for Sea Change cohort met in Baja California, where they began brainstorming the early manuscript of their paper, based on their collective experience; Image Credit: Santiago Domínguez Sánchez, Oregon State University.

Leaders for Sea Change’ perspective, “Centering relationships to place for more meaningful research and engagement”

By Katharine Bear Nalven

Jun 11, 2024


Minute Read


Along the sunset shores of northern California with waves gently crashing in the distance, 20 researchers spanning career stages and expertise gathered in solidarity to create the early drafts of “Centering relationships to place for more meaningful research and engagement.

That is how I would like to begin this blog — however that is entirely not what happened. The road leading to the publication was a much longer and transformational process that extended for over 3 years. This time was turbulent and full of variables: our plans for in-person gatherings were disrupted due to the pandemic, many of us changed jobs, PhDs were defended, families grew, but one constant remained — our collective desire to share this perspective to underscore the importance of collaborative, place-based research.

In 2020, my colleagues and I were selected to participate in Leaders for Sea Change, a year-long COMPASS leadership program designed to prepare ocean scientists to create “meaningful change within themselves, their community, and society.” Our Leaders for Sea Change cohort was composed of inspirational individuals spanning career stages and expertise representing the pacific coast of North America from Alaska to Baja California. 

Over the course of the program, through monthly virtual calls, a common motif emerged where we openly expressed challenges and systemic barriers we have experienced when engaging in academic ventures and research. We shared our desires to engage in genuine and equitable research to support communities beyond these frameworks and constructs of the walls of academia. 

These conversations lead us to reflect upon and discuss personal and professional experiences in which some of us have been harmed, unintentionally created harm, and shared examples in which we have meaningfully engaged with communities. As we continued to explore and reflect upon our experiences and desires surrounding this motif, we became acutely aware that we felt a call to share these experiences, observations, and offer recommendations for other scholars and researchers as a way to support more equitable and engaging research.

A community meeting in January 2023 where collaborative research results were presented to Squamish Nation community members. Credit: Fiona Beaty, University of British Columbia

This manuscript is truly a remarkable statement in that 14 co-authors spanning generations, countries, and experiences have all encountered these systemic barriers and collectively recognize a need for change. This paper integrates insights from all the co-authors’ voices and leverages our collective experiences. We all owe much credit to the lead author, Dr. Fiona Beaty, who kept this manuscript alive through variable times and organized our collective contributions. 

To summarize, this paper is a response to the fact that knowledge generation, especially in the academic sense, has historically harmed communities and perpetuated extractive systems of power. Often, the current academic systems support ‘parachute science,’ researchers literally dropping into a place, conducting natural or social research without meaningful engagement of the community and without benefitting to the community, oftentimes harming the community and local experts who may have contributed to the work. Through this perspective, we intend to demonstrate the need for a holistic approach to research that fosters meaningful relationship-building with the social-ecological context and history of each study area.

In this paper, we propose three pathways ranging from individual to systemic change to enhance place-based relationships within research systems. The three pathways are: 

  1. Individual: Deepen reflection and communication about relationships with places and peoples
  2. Collective: Strengthen collaboration amongst research teams and partners
  3. Systemic: Transform system of knowledge creation to foster place-based roots 

These pathways can help to deepen relationships and engagement with the social-ecological context and history of a place to lead to more accurate results and improve public trust in the scientific process. 

Co-author Ana Spalding has immersed herself in Bocas del Toro communities in Caribbean Panama, developing relationships with its local and Indigenous residents and incorporating their knowledge and needs into her research. Image Credit: Ana Endara, STRI

As an early career researcher, I entered this program to gain experience and to participate in a cohort of other marine science professionals. Throughout this program, I grew as a researcher and an individual, and I became more comfortable in sharing my perspective, and forged lasting friendships and connections. Connecting with our Leaders for Sea Change cohort allowed me to realize the power of my experiences and perspectives and gave me the strength to speak up when developing research and programs to strive for equity and genuine practices — to lead with a good heart, in a good way.  Through this program I reflected upon my academic experiences and defined the injustices I observed, but didn’t understand. This perspective is more than an offering of suggestions for other researchers, it represents our souls, why we engage in ocean and coastal studies, and how we envision a world with more equitable research practices in efforts to yield more holistic science and engagement.

About the Author

Katy Bear Nalven is an ocean conservation researcher who thrives in the spaces of applied science and collaborative projects. Katy works as a consultant with Sea & Shore Solutions. In this role, she is involved in many projects, but primarily focuses on marine protected areas, community groups, and marine wildlife. Katy enjoys living in Newport, Oregon where free time is best spent at Oregon’s picturesque beaches.




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