Story by Public Affairs Office
Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport
Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport marine scientist Natasha Dickenson, who works in the Environmental Branch of the Corporate Operations Department, is proof that not all successful careers take traditional paths.
During a virtual presentation on March 24 to students in the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) as part of its Alumni Networking Series, Dickenson described how her at-times challenging path was filled with rewarding experiences along the way.
“Nontraditional paths work too,” Dickenson said. “It was challenging, but it all worked out. I’m happy with where I am now.”
In her current job at Division Newport, Dickenson conducts biological research and prepares environmental planning documentation for the Navy’s testing and training activities. She has previously served as the lead on numerous marine biological, physical, chemical and geological data collection/analysis efforts in support of environmental monitoring and assessment programs.
She is an expert in marine, estuaries, wetlands, biology and ecology, with a focus on habitat characterization, dredged material management and benthic community assessments.
Her path to this point, however, began nearly 30 years ago.
Dickenson, a native of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, who now resides in Waterford, Connecticut, started her college career in 1993 at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. After a semester in the field for a marine mammal conservation program in Mexico and another semester at the University of New Hampshire, she ultimately landed at URI. There, she went on to graduate with Bachelor of Science in biology with a marine concentration in 1997.
That same year she did an internship at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, training and caring for beluga whales. Then, from 1998-2000, she worked in sailing in Newport and St. Martin in the summer, spending her winters skiing in Colorado.
“Those were experiences I don’t regret at all, but then I realized it was time to get a job,” Dickenson said. “I applied to places all around the country.”
Even still, Dickenson ultimately landed close to home at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in Middletown.
“The work was heavy field survey oriented,” Dickenson said. “Halfway through my time there, I decided to get my master’s. I remained full time at SAIC and I took on coursework at GSO. It took six years to finish my master’s program as I only took one class per semester. It was extremely hard, but it was doable.”
Dickenson credited her experience at SAIC for helping to focus her area of interest, benthic ecology. This refers to the study of organisms that make up the bottom communities — sediments, seagrass and rock outcrops, for example — in lakes, streams, estuaries and oceans. This information is used to determine the health of an environment and to conduct impact studies.
“There was no official program at GSO geared to my research, so I sort of designed my own through specific course offerings at GSO, classes at other universities and multiple independent research projects on benthic topics,” Dickenson said. “My research for my thesis was not fully funded, but my project was successful nonetheless because of the generosity and support of many people.”
For her thesis, Dickenson focused on recolonization and ecological succession at Rhode Island Sound artificial reefs.
“It was a very interesting project,” David Smith, GSO Dean of Students, said. “Some of you may remember the old Jamestown Bridge. Natasha did a very fascinating project about what happened to the debris.”
After the Jamestown Bridge was demolished in 2006, concrete debris was placed in two designated inshore, artificial reef sites — Gooseberry Island Reef at the mouth of Buzzards Bay and Sheep Point Reef off Newport. For her project, Dickenson evaluated the morphology and colonization at the reefs and ultimately determined the old bridge debris was serving in a productive capacity for enhancing marine resources.
“I became really interested in benthic habitat characterization and habitat assessment,” Dickenson said. “I shifted from working with marine mammals to more of the benthic ecology end of things, which I’ve continued through to today.”
Her work in benthic ecology led Dickenson to a brief stint at the R.I. Department of Environmental Management as a field researcher before applying for and being hired at Division Newport in April 2008. She completed her master’s degree from GSO in 2010.
Dickenson has a number of areas of expertise, including hull biofouling of decommissioned Navy vessels to determine transfer risk of invasive species. Other foci include antifouling methods, invasive species risk analysis, coral mitigation and socioeconomic fisheries studies examining use conflicts on Navy ranges.
Much of this work falls under Division Newport’s Mission Environmental Planning Program (MEPP), which among its many functions focuses on supporting environmental planning and compliance efforts for the Navy and external customers, as well as data gaps to better inform environmental planning analyses and support the Navy mission.
“In terms of scientific expertise, we have folks in our office with all types of aquatic experience,” Dickenson said. “The Navy is a great environmental steward of the sea. It is doing what it needs to do to perform training and testing activities, but what we do is make sure these activities are done in a manner to limit impact to marine species. These activities have to occur, but they also have to occur within boundaries and per regulations.”
“I had a chance to travel a lot after my bachelor’s degree and I always knew I was going to come back to Rhode Island,” Dickenson said. “I’ve traveled all around the world for NUWC so it satisfies my travel bug professionally and then I have my base here. I’m very happy calling Rhode Island my home.”
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