University of Central Florida Coastal researchers are part of a new, $2 million U.S. National Science Foundation-funded project to work toward a more inclusive field of marine sciences.

The Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF), an estuary research nonprofit, is leading the project, which includes six partner agencies and universities, including UCF.

The collaboration is named “C-COAST: Changing the Culture of our Occupations to Achieve Systemic Transformation,” and the award is part of NSF’s Leading Culture Change Through Professional Societies of Biology, or BIO-LEAPS, program.

“Like many academic fields, the scholars studying issues in coastal regions are not representative of the populations that work and live there,” says Kristy Lewis, project co-investigator and an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Biology and National Center for Integrated Coastal Research. “It is critical that marine and coastal sciences recruit, train and retain a more diverse workforce in order to be responsive to the needs of communities most impacted by the synergistic challenges facing our coasts and coastal communities.”

The C-COAST collaboration will expand upon an existing CERF program: Rising TIDES (Toward an Inclusive, Diverse and Enriched Society). This program brings students to the CERF conference and provides full financial support, mentorship and professional development, along with the full suite of conference offerings.

C-COAST logo

With the new grant, CERF will be able to expand the opportunity to a 16-month program to allow students to attend three in-person meetings — the CERF Biennial Conference, a regional CERF Affiliate Society meeting and the Restore America’s Estuaries Summit — while also receiving virtual training and mentorship in between.

The new grant also will build capacity for more inclusive leadership at home institutions and agencies. C-COAST will develop the new CERF Inclusive Leadership Program (CERF ILP) to educate current leaders on ways to leverage their positions of power to change policies and practices that lead to inequities.

Lewis will be working on the project with co-investigator Jennifer Sandoval, an associate professor in UCF’s Nicholson School of Communication and Media and National Center for Integrated Coastal Research.

“Dr. Sandoval and I are excited to help develop the CERF ILP to train current and aspirational leaders to incorporate more inclusive and equitable practices in their labs, classrooms and home units,” Lewis says. “We all know the business case for more diverse perspectives has been made over and over again, but we believe there is now a moral imperative to provide a foundation for equity-minded lenses across the coastal sciences.”

The initiative also will train and develop current leaders in inclusive communication, mentorship and equity minded approaches to policymaking and leadership. The goal is to instill a mindset that centers belonging and connection across differences to every level of the discipline, Sandoval says.

“My role in C-COAST is to provide an evidence-based perspective on the better and promising practices of effective communication across difference and difficulty,” Sandoval says. “Working in diverse environments can be challenging and messy, but that’s how we get to a more humane and sustainable approach to change. This requires intentional and thoughtful engagement in culture building.”

C-COAST includes 15 faculty and leaders from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), the University of Central Florida (UCF), California State University Long Beach (CSULB), the University of San Diego (USD) and New Jersey City University. All are minority-serving institutions, meaning at least half of their student body represents minority groups.

Project team leads include Kristy Lewis with UCF, Susan Park with CERF, Leila Hamdan with USM, Kristin Wilson Grimes with UVI and Christine Whitcraft with CSULB.

Project leaders are also in three NSF Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) jurisdictions. EPSCoR was developed to ensure critical funding was provided for predominantly undergraduate institutions and minority servicing institutions to broaden participation in scientific research and workforce development.

Researchers’ Credentials

Lewis received her doctorate in oceanography and coastal sciences with a minor in experimental statistics from Louisiana State University. She joined UCF’s Department of Biology, part of the College of Sciences, in 2018.

Sandoval received her doctorate in culture and communication from the University of New Mexico. She joined UCF’s Nicholson School of Communication and Media, part of the College of Sciences, in 2011.