Dr. Melanie Harrison Okoro spent her childhood fishing with her great-grandmother in the waters of Alabama. At the time, she knew she didn’t really enjoy getting up so early to fish. She also knew that one day she was going to have her Doctorate’s Degree. What she didn’t know, however, is that the time spent with her great-grandmother may have had led her down a career path she didn’t originally anticipate.
Dr. Melanie Harrison Okoro. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Okoro)
Dr. Okoro always wanted to be a doctor – a medical doctor. When she started her undergraduate degree, she was studying biology in the pursuit of this career goal. That aspiration took a turn when she visited a hospital to observe preserved organs – something Melanie had a hard time stomaching. Soon after, she shifted her interest to ecology.
During the summers, Melanie researched urban streams and wetlands in North Carolina. Her study was observing the impacts of disease on declining eastern oysters. After obtaining her undergraduate degree, Melanie went on to get a PhD in Marine Estuarine and Environmental Science. After graduating, she advocated for diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields through her work with the following groups:
Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN):
Dr. Okoro served on the Leadership Board of ESWN to promote diversity and inclusion in STEM fields. She accomplished this by promoting outreach events that value inclusion and by encouraging STEM employers to consider diverse, qualified applicants. Melanie also encourages minorities in STEM fields to network with others in the field. She feels networking is an effective way to provide a place where people have an opportunity to discuss personal and professional obstacles as a minority in the STEM fields.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
Melanie’s involvement with NOAA included serving as The West Coast Region’s Water Quality Specialist and Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator and, in 2017, she received the Employee of the Year Award for her contributions to NOAA Fisheries stewardship responsibilities.
Although the mentioned accomplishments are already impressive, the list goes on. Dr. Okoro also sits on the board of the Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success in Earth System Science (MS PHD’s). When asked if she thinks MS PHD’s has been successful in increasing diversity in scientific fields, Dr. Okoro stated:
“Yes, I do. MS PHD’S facilitates on-going interaction, communication and support via membership within a virtual community comprised of peers, junior/senior-level researchers, and educators actively involved in facilitating full participation of minorities in the Earth system sciences. These type of interactions have led to collaborations, consistent dialogue, and created a community of professionals in the field, as well as served as a model for academia, scientific organizations, and industries who seek to cultivate a diverse and inclusive community of scientist and professionals in the field.
MS PHD’s was able to increase diversity by: (1) facilitation of underrepresented groups in participation in scientific conferences, mentoring relationships, virtual activities, and field trips; (2) enhancing professional skills, grantsmanship, oral and written communication; (3) providing funding, education and career opportunity resources; (4) facilitating networking opportunities with established researchers and educators.”
Melanie also served as an Early Career Scientist for the America Geophysical Union (AGU), where she actively promoted diversity and engagement. Melanie continued to encourage diversity in STEM by mentoring youth as a Big Sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and through her involvement with the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Davis, California Chapter.
Today, Dr. Okoro serves as the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Eco-Alpha Environmental and Engineering Services in Sacramento, California. She started her business about a year ago to help find creative solutions to various problems that her clients may have, such as trying to run a more environmentally-friendly business. Melanie also helps her clients by running and managing projects and programs that help protect the environment. To date, there are a total of eight projects in her business’s portfolio. An example of one of the projects her company has worked on includes hosting and organizing an event for Bio-Wave Products, LLC to help local governments learn how to maintain infrastructures using sustainable green products.
If you’re an aspiring environmental scientist and are a little intimidated by the Dr. Okoro’s accomplishments, don’t worry! Everyone has to start somewhere. Below are some tips from Dr. Melanie Harrison Okoro herself:
“Networking, for me, is all about identifying the people, organizations, and/or communities that I want to be a part of that align with my interests, staying consistently engaged, and learning from and contributing to the network. So…
- Take a moment and ask yourself:
- What organization/community, either personal or professional I would like to be a part of?
- Can I commit my time to the network?
- Will I commit to staying engaged?
- Identify two or three individuals, organizations, or communities that you would either like to network with and can contribute to. Write them down.
- Be an active member of your network community, seek out opportunities, on-going interaction, communication and support via membership with peers, junior/senior-level researchers, and educators actively involved in facilitating and supporting you. This is a key component. Networking is all about putting the work in, cultivating relationships, and becoming a part of a network, so that others benefit as well.”
So, what does this all have to do with Dr. Okoro fishing with her great-grandmother all those years ago? Although Dr. Okoro, at the time, would have rather slept in, Melanie may have not grown to appreciate all the beneficial resources that our oceans, rivers and streams can provide if she hadn’t spent that time in the waters of Alabama. Maybe there’s an ecological system or habitat that you’d be driven to protect?