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Climate Change: The Coral Connection

May 3 2021

Julia Leal takes full advantage of the spring weather by working outside in White Plaza. (Photo credit: Julia Leal)

By Julia Leal '22
Hometown: Morgan Hill, California
Earth Systems
Program Analyst Intern, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), South Pacific Division

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What drew you to this internship?

I became energized for this particular internship when talking with my now supervisor Juliette about all of the different climate mitigation projects in progress at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). It was exciting to hear about her experiences at other governmental agencies that they partner with, such as the EPA, FEMA, and NOAA. During our initial conversation, we noticed a shared desire to utilize science and engineering towards helping others and pursuing a life of public service through this important work.

I believe that climate change is the most pressing issue of our time, and requires so many people to get involved in developing solutions that can then be implemented on local, state, and federal levels through effective policy. Through this internship, I hope to gain insight into the dynamics and mechanisms of working at a government agency in preparation for future career endeavors in these fields. I appreciate that the position offers flexibility to pursue multiple projects that interest me, and that I get to observe and participate in many meetings held by different government agency partners. In addition, the collaborative and integrative nature of this role aligns with my interdisciplinary academic pursuits at Stanford.

How does your role support the host organization’s mission?

The mission of the USACE reads as follows: “Deliver vital engineering solutions, in collaboration with our partners, to secure our Nation, energize our economy, and reduce disaster risk.” This mission prioritizes people and partnerships in all work done by the organization. My role is to support projects that will use nature-based engineering solutiosn to help communities adapt to the risks posed by climate change. I am contributing background research for multiple climate-related projects and also working on methods for instituting organizational change. Other responsibilities include helping to organize planning meetings with other agency partners. By providing my unique, outside input into USACE endeavors and reminding my colleagues to view work through a community-based lens, I am helping to improve collaboration amongst different stakeholders so that there is greater sensitivity when planning, funding, and implementing important civil works projects.

Describe at least one project you will be working on this summer:

One of the projects I have been working on thus far is helping to build an outline for a “how-to” resource guide for the Coral Reef Restoration for Risk Reduction project, or CR4 for short. I have been researching coral reefs, restoration options, and funding requirements to better understand the project, which will be a guide for local communities on how to site, design, and fund a coral reef restoration project. This is an important attempt to protect at-risk elements of the natural world, like coral reefs, going forward, along with the communities surrounding them. In order to help create this “how-to” guide, I began by reading through several existing resilience guides put together by agencies like the EPA and NOAA. This helped me parse the structural and design elements I found to be most effective when considering things like the intended audience, flexibility in project planning, and format accessibility. Then, I put together my preliminary findings in the form of an infographic [shown right] to present at a joint meeting focused on corals as green infrastructure, with representatives from different organizational partners like USGS and FEMA in attendance. This project has been valuable to work on because it builds upon my prior science communication coursework and interest in psychology. I enjoy the challenge of working through how to best share my ideas amongst a group of people from various backgrounds and expertise.

How does this project relate to your studies and/or career goals?

Last quarter, I took a core Earth Systems course called ‘Biology and Global Change’, through which we spent a good portion learning about how coral reefs are affected by climate change impacts like ocean acidification and the science behind these processes. One aspect of this class consisted of writing our own recommendations through policy briefs for each topic by incorporating the existing scientific research in conjunction with the social and economic implications being reported. Through my Earth Systems coursework, and now as I work on the CR4 “how-to” guide project, I have been cultivating my skills in science communication through writing and creating visualizations. Moreover, the knowledge I have gained from an introductory environmental justice class I took in the fall relates to the focus of the USACE on people and partnerships, and how increased attention on a federal level towards prioritizing science and environmental justice in the work of organizations is paramount. The climate crisis is a justice issue because historically marginalized communities have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, and these communities must be given more support and focus through government funding and policy decisions. In the future, I aim to pursue a career in climate policy, so gaining experience in devising climate mitigation strategies and collaborating with many different stakeholders through this project will be beneficial.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

In my spare time, I love to dance, both through classes and projects with the Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) department, but also with my tap dance team Stanford tapTH@T. Over the past few years I have explored as many styles as I can, like hip-hop, contemporary, ballet, and ballroom, and enjoy choreographing for and performing in productions on campus and virtually. Additionally, I am a huge fan of soccer and my favorite team to follow is the San Jose Earthquakes, a professional MLS club from my hometown. Since moving back to campus in the fall, I have also spent a lot of my time biking and walking in nature, trying new recipes in my kitchen, and discovering new music and podcasts to listen to.

Above right: Julia's draft of the 'How-To' Guide
Above: Julia Leal rehearses for an upcoming spring dance showcase. (Photo credit: Maia Nguyen)


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