From UC Davis to the US State Department: Q&A with State Fellow alumna Sarah Flores

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Fellow Type: California Sea Grant State Fellow

Sarah Flores was a California Sea Grant State Fellow in 2011 with the California Ocean Protection Council. She is passionate about environmental protection and working with diverse communities, and her background largely centers on environmental policy. She is now an Environmental Cooperation Program Administrator in the U.S. Department of State.

What was your background prior to becoming a California Sea Grant state fellow?

I started my academic trajectory as a geology major at the University of California Davis, where I also completed a master’s in geology. At some point in my master’s I became curious about bridging that gap with policy, so I applied for a marine policy internship during summer 2010 at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, which coincided with the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill. There was a flurry of activity in Congress on this environmental disaster. Through this internship, I had the opportunity to attend hearings, provide insight, and give my opinion on information that was being reported on containment and clean-up efforts. I was looked to as a person to help provide and interpret information, and my opinion immediately mattered to the organization that I was working with. I think that turned the tide for me. This was an opportunity to be a scientist out of the lab– in a space where everything moves a little bit faster, and you see the real life application of your work. I immediately wanted to change my career trajectory toward policy. My professor suggested that I look into the California Sea Grant program, and so I did. That’s what led to my application.

What did you do during your time as a state fellow?

Sarah lives in Washington, D.C.
Sarah lives in Washington, D.C.

I was matched with my number one choice at the California Ocean Protection Council. The California Ocean Protection Council is a state agency that promotes sound coastal and ocean environmental management informed by the best available science. Their mission resonated with the kind of career that I wanted to have. I had the opportunity to work on mitigating climate change impacts, which was an area that I was really interested in. I’d say my biggest achievement was leading an update on policy guidance to include new sea-level rise predictions. This guidance was used by California agencies and affected leases of state lands and added safeguards to funding decisions. It was a very impactful project to be able to gather state agencies that work on natural resources along the coast and to say, “We have new data and information—can you please use this to make better decisions?”

How did your experience as a fellow influence your career trajectory?

I finally got the professional experience that I needed to bridge the gap between having a science background and pursuing a policy career. I learned how to research information, how to look critically at data, how to distill technical information and communicate it to people who don’t have a scientific background. I was able to give an expert opinion on why a certain environmental management decision would be appropriate, or how funds should be allocated to a specific project. That practical experience reassured me that I had picked a path that was exciting, and that there was a career in being able to bridge both science and policy. Also, being a Sea Grant fellow opened up a lot of doors for me: it allowed me to be in rooms where decisions are happening, be a part of key conversations, present at council meetings, author documents, and to provide expert opinions. It was awesome.

Describe your career pathway.

In one word—nonlinear. While I was at the Ocean Protection Council, I developed an appreciation for the importance of public participation in environmental decision making and for processes that were open and transparent to members of the community. I really took to heart the mission of the organization, which was making better decisions informed by science and information. I combined these two, and I became very curious about community-based work. I decided to take a little bit of a detour and work in the nonprofit sector with the Southern California Center for Nonprofit Management. There, I conducted research, analysis, surveys and focus groups for community-focused projects. I contributed to impact assessment for programs on public health, education and community-based initiatives. I also conducted work with Spanish-speaking communities, leveraging my language skills and connecting with communities of color.

At some point, I really started missing working with science and the environment. I also wanted to return to working in government with an emphasis on “big picture” projects and managing funds. I applied for a position at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where I worked as a Science Education Analyst on academic programs graduate students within a range of scientific disciplines. My experience at the NSF combined with my background in environmental science, experience with natural resource management, and professional experience with Spanish-speaking communities led to my current position at the Department of State. My trajectory kind of took a little bit of a turn. I just pursued the things that I thought were really professionally interesting along the way.

Discussing environment cooperation program priorities at the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. San Salvador, El Salvador.
Discussing environment cooperation program priorities at the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. San Salvador, El Salvador.

What is your position now, and what does it consist of?

I am at the State Department, where I currently support implementation of Environmental Cooperation Programs in Central and South America. The programs are supported under the framework of the Dominican Republic- Central America Free- Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. My work emphasizes on maintaining high levels of environmental protection, and providing access for public participation in environment matters, spanning solid waste management, air quality, combating wildlife trafficking, and promoting cleaner production and energy efficiency. So, all of the topics under the sun in environmental protection.

Dialogue with government staff and technical experts to identify gaps in solid waste management. Bogotá, Colombia.
Dialogue with government staff and technical experts to identify gaps in solid waste management. Bogotá, Colombia.

What is the best thing about the work you do?

There are so many things I like about the work I do. I think one of them is that I get to work with communities and at the intersection of environmental science and policy. I liaise and cooperate with federal agencies and NGOs. I’m making use of my Spanish-language skills and connecting with international communities, which is very rewarding. As I mentioned, I’m really intrigued by “big picture” stuff. It doesn’t get any more big picture than this. I feel really proud of the work that I do. I feel like the work that I do matters and is making a positive change (particularly in the environment), so I feel gratified.

Do you have any advice for people who are interested in similar fields as yours?

For my particular line of work – international environmental policy: get to DC as quickly as possible and start with an internship at a federal agency (Editor’s note: check out the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship). Find someone to help you navigate the federal work system. And in general: say “yes” to opportunities that come your way that are interesting and that will build your skills. Take a pause to assess your career trajectory and know that it’s okay to change along the way as you learn more about other fields, jobs and your personal interests evolve. Stay informed and read the news. Ask for guidance and advice from peers, mentors, and people whose job you think is interesting and you’d like to have one day. It’s okay to ask people for a coffee/informational interview to learn more about their professional trajectory or a field. Always ask others to review your resume, statements, and cover letters, and be open to feedback.

 

Interview conducted and edited by Sofia Bermudez, California Sea Grant Science Communication Assistant and UCSD Biology Major (‘22).