A Seabound Summer


Working as a NOAA intern, Erika Koontz helped map a national marine sanctuary and gained deeper insight into the relationship between research and resource management.

Erika Koontz’s summer internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was an action-packed ten weeks, two of which she spent offshore on the 187-foot NOAA research vessel Nancy Foster, mapping the seafloor as part of a long-term project to accurately map the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. And while she soaked up the hands-on experience like a sponge, Koontz says perhaps the most valuable result was clarifying how she wants to move forward toward her career.

“A lot of what I did this summer was research-based, but I was also exposed to conservation and policy, which I want to delve more deeply into,” says Koontz ’17, an environmental studies major, with biology and Spanish minors. She focused her internship paper on how the mapping project is helping influence management decisions in the sanctuary, even interviewing the sanctuary’s deputy superintendent for science and policy to gain more insight into resource management and its relationship to research.

It made her realize, she says, that while research is important, so is the policy process that uses research to support sound resource management. And that’s where she intends to focus her future efforts.

“I like to be able to make an immediate impact,” Koontz says, “to actually take all of that research and interpret it in a way that helps preserve or restore an area of the natural world.”

Koontz’s work was part of “ground-truthing” satellite imagery that’s used as the basis for initial maps of the sanctuary. This was accomplished in a variety of ways, using divers to examine areas that are too deep for satellites to photograph, and in shallow habitats, using cameras alongside the vessel. She also participated in sonar mapping, as well as water column and seafloor sediment sampling.

Working the noon to midnight shift onboard, Koontz helped with sonar transits of the seafloor. In between, she talked to survey technicians, quizzing them about the different types of programs they use to process data, and even conducting her own imagery surveys by rigging a GoPro camera to the frame of the Young Grab sampler, an enormous claw-like apparatus that sank up to 150 feet to the seafloor to grab samples of the bottom.

Her work in Washington College’s GIS Lab, where she is a journeyman and project manager mapping Poplar Island for the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, gave her solid background to understand the full process of digitizing data to create maps.

The first research cruise was in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The second, out of Charleston, South Carolina, took her offshore where part of the work was sampling the seafloor to determine where wind turbines could be safely placed. In between, she was based at the NOAA Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, where she processed the data that she’d helped gather aboard the ship.

Although the internship was unpaid, Koontz worked with the College’s Center for Career Development to earn funding from the Hodson Trust and the Nina R. Houghton Internship Fund. Koontz, a Cater Society Fellow and a Middendorf Environmental Fellow, is president of Habitat for Humanity, a peer mentor, and a member of the Student Environmental Alliance.