Episode 4: Alexandra Grayson

Camryn Billett hosts NCAS-M’s podcast Students, Scientists, and Stakeholders. She is a senior communications major and computer science minor at Howard University. Billett participated in NCAS-M’s Experiential Training Summer Program for Rising Sophomores (ETSP) in 2019. Currently, she is working with NCAS-M as a communications fellow. 

Podcast host Camryn Billett speaks with her guest Alexandra Grayson about Grayson’s experience in NCAS-M’s Experiential Training Summer Program for Rising Sophomores (ETSP) in 2019. Rising senior at Howard University, Alexandra Grayson is pursuing her undergraduate degree in environmental science with an economics and biology double minor. Currently, she is interning with NOAA through their Educational Partnership Program with Minority Serving Institutions Undergraduate Scholarship Program. Her future career goals include contributing to climate justice research and NOAA-related science policy. 


Camryn Billett: [00:00:00] Welcome to NCAS-M Students, Scientists and Stakeholders where you will learn all there is to know about NCAS-M. I’m your host and current NCAS-M fellow Camryn Billett. We are a student-led podcast designed to help you explore all educational and career opportunities available here at NOAA through NCAS-M.On this podcast, you’ll hear stories and conversations from students about their current and past experiences working here. You’ll get to understand our mission and hopefully come and join us. Today, we are joined by Alexandra Grayson, who is a rising senior at Howard University in Washington, DC. Alexandra and I spent the summer together during our NCAS-M summer internship program. Alexandra, welcome.  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:00:56] Hi, Camryn, how are you?  

Camryn Billett: [00:00:59] I’m good. I’m good. Um, thank you for being here today. 

Alexandra Grayson: [00:01:02] Yeah, thank you for the invitation. This is exciting.  

Camryn Billett: [00:01:05] Oh, no problem. So, um, I mentioned to the audience that we spent the NCAS-M summer internship programs together, and that was in 2019. And, um, before we get started, I just want to know what is your major and well, what is your major? What was your major when we started the program, and what is your major now if it has changed? 

Alexandra Grayson: [00:01:25] Yeah, that’s a good question. I was a political science major, I’m pretty sure, when I started the program.  

Camryn Billett: [00:01:30] Oh, wow. 

Alexandra Grayson: [00:01:31] Um, I switched to environmental science and so after like right after that summer. Um, so yeah, now I’m an environmental science major and um, economics and biology as double minors since then so yeah.  

Camryn Billett: [00:01:46] So you are an environmental science major, economics and biology minor. Do you know exactly what you want to do or no?  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:01:55] Um, not necessarily like a complete, like, completely like step-by-step, but I do know I want to do research related to climate justice, and I ultimately want to work on policy, um, NOAA-related science policy. 

Camryn Billett: [00:02:13] Oh, okay, so how did you first hear about NOAA and like get involved with NCAS-M?  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:02:20] Yeah, so I was kind of involved with NOAA like my freshman year. I had just come out of an American Fisheries Society like internship program after my senior year of high school, working with someone I met there, um, throughout my freshman year who was at a Sea Grant, um, which is a part of NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program. I was with Maryland Sea Grant doing science, journalism, mostly related to mussels in the Chesapeake Bay region. 

Um, and also just trying to do like a bit of Washington DC engagement. And so I was, I had a conversation with Dr. Morris, um, and he was like wonderful at NCAS-M that we have here. And, you know, we have this program, the one that you and I did together, the, um, ETSP program and that was a great opportunity. And it, yeah, you know, it kind of showed me what NOAA was really about. 

Cause I, coming from Baltimore, the Chesapeake region, like most people get into the environmental stuff if that’s like their interest, and that was my interest. Like they get into it through like marine activities like the aquariums in Baltimore, like all that. So that’s how, that was my start. But then I, I got into a wildfire project, learned a bit of GIS. 

We learned are just like, okay, this is where this is really about. This is what research is about. This is what it’s about. So, I got to learn a bit more about what NOAA did outside of, you know, the “website of NOAA.” I need to try to like stop using that term, but the marine side and also like the Sea Grant, um, work, just learn more about the other parts of NOAA. So that was it, that was, those were my first interactions with NOAA.  

Camryn Billett: [00:04:11] That’s really cool. So, you, so for me, I was introduced to NOAA um, my freshman year at Howard. I’ve interviewed a couple of other people, and a couple others have said, like, they kind of, you know, had like a NOAA pipeline where they did something pre-NCAS-M ETSP, um, in which they talked to an advisor or somebody else that worked for NOAA and they, um, got them into it. But I also had Dr. Morris as my advisor. He was your advisor, correct?  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:04:40] He was not my advisor, um, during the summer, but I, I was interviewing him just as a part of my internship with Sea Grant. 

Camryn Billett: [00:04:49] Oh, okay. Well, you mentioned, um, Dr. Morris, and you mentioned wildfires, and stuff like that. And I also had the same, you know, revelation when I came to NOAA because, you know, I–of course NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Agency)–like it’s in the name, but for some reason, I always think of just water when I think of NOAA. And so, my project consisted of atmospheric sciences. It consisted of, um, you know, analyzing the Saharan aerosols that come over and how they impact our climate, and our weather, and stuff like that. And so, it really kind of opened my eyes to everything that you could do at NOAA. You mentioned wildfire. Can you just expand on that wildfire project that you worked on in the summer?  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:05:36] Yeah, so I was working on the fire X AQ field campaign and some work required for that. So, we were working, I was working with an instrument called Master. The, my advisor for that summer was the PI for that instrument. And so, we were working on some programming for that, and it’s, it was interesting because that instrument focuses on fire radiative power. Instead of most of the instruments attached to, to the aircraft, most of the instruments attached to the aircraft were related, were focusing on, you know, smoke, which is interesting. It was about your pollution for the most part, the field campaign, but it was interesting to see, you know, the importance of firing and power, um, in that work as well. So that was pretty cool. Um, it taught me a lot about the science and the technology behind wildfire and wildfire science. So.  

Camryn Billett: [00:06:37] That’s really cool, and especially like seeing like 2020 last year, just the wildfires that 2020 was already a crazy year, but just the wildfires that took over the West Coast was–  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:06:50] –Yeah. 

Camryn Billett: [00:06:50] Was crazy to see in real time, honestly.  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:06:53] Definitely. Yeah. So, I’m currently a NOAA EPP/MSI, undergraduate scholar. And the project I worked on last summer was related to how wildfires interacted with COVID and just a lot of the cross sections that sprung up, that sprung up from that, and future research questions that people can and should address at NOAA, and outside of the agency and, you know, maybe amongst different agencies. So that was some of the work I did last summer, but it was crazy to work on that. and then also like see it happening.  

Camryn Billett: [00:07:24] Yeah, in real time. Yeah, that would, uh, that would have tripped me up a little bit, but, um, so you have the internship and you just mentioned that you’re a NOAA EPP/MSI scholar. Um, would you say that your NCAS-M ETSP summer internship, would you say it was a good opportunity? Like educationally and, and, um, career wise and financially? Would you say, even though, like, it was a good opportunity, it also showed you what you didn’t want to study. Um, I just want to know how did the internship like impact you and impact your, your plans moving forward?  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:07:59] Yeah, I think it definitely had a positive impact on my trajectory. You know, I, I wasn’t really, I was kind of feeling, you know, the marine stuff, but it didn’t feel as connected to people as I would like. 

And, you know, like there are ways to connect that, that work to people obviously, but no, not always in the ways that I would like for it to. And I feel like, you know, addressing air quality and, um, getting into a project related to that, um, even if that’s not going to be like my direct path, it was nice because it’s like, okay, I know how this connects to people. 

That was my thought at the time, and you know, learning how to program is a very important skill or at least knowing a bit of it. GIS is a very important skill. And I just try to continue to brush up on those skills since that summer, I learned how important they were. 

Camryn Billett: [00:08:48] Right.  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:08:49] Um, you know, I think you learn a lot from all like professional endeavors–  

Camryn Billett: [00:08:55] –Experiences, yeah. 

Alexandra Grayson: [00:08:56] Yeah. So, um, you know, I was, we were commuting. I’m like, okay, I learned, you know, how to deal with that. I was taking classes at the same time, so you just learn how to balance more, which is always important. And also, um, yeah, it, it taught me more about the agency and really secured like, my beliefs that I really wanted to do work, um, with them. 

Camryn Billett: [00:09:23] It’s interesting that you say like, um, you didn’t feel like your first, I want to say project or introduction into NOAA was as connected to people because all of the people that I’ve interviewed so far, you know, we had these internships, and you know, they’re very science-based for real, for real, um, and very environmental based. 

But what I will say about, like all the interviewees is that they’ve all said like, you know, after the internship, what I really wanted to do is I really wanted to dive in more, so that I could see how my work was impacting people. And like some of our, um, some of the people that we did the internship with are pursuing careers, and certifications, and degrees, and stuff like, um, weather readiness and things that like FEMA does like in terms of preparing the city for, um, certain natural disasters, um, and other weather things. 

But, you know, I just want to point out that it’s crazy that everybody has decided that while their internships were very science-based and environmental-based and not all of them having to do directly with people, what they got out of it is okay. Now I want to see how my work can help others, and I think that’s really admirable, and it shows the environment that it shows, like how you’re cultivating in that NOAA environment. You know, it just sounds like you just come out being a better person.  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:10:51] Yeah, definitely. And I feel like a lot of it too is, I don’t know if everybody was from like our, um, like cohort, but, you know, we were pretty diverse, and I think that’s a testament to like, how important diversity is in just the sciences. Like, there are people who are, you know, willing to, and more, you know, more inclined to see how their science connects to people. You know, for me the first experience I had, I was like, I don’t, I wanted to touch on, you know, we’re talking about mussels, restoring waterways, but I really wanted to talk about environmental gentrification and how cleaning up waterways can also lead to, you know, increased home prices and pushing people out since you were talking about like the DMV area and, you know, DC has this going on, even just in the four years that we’ve been enrolled. So, you know, I wanted to touch on that. 

Camryn Billett: [00:11:46] Definitely. 

Alexandra Grayson: [00:11:48] And so I, yeah, I do think I was just like, well, I was trying to connect the science topic to people’s equity in different ways, but it’s really nice knowing that other people come out feeling similar. 

Camryn Billett: [00:12:02] Right. The last thing or one of the last few things I’m going to ask you. So, you said you mentioned that you’re a NOAA EPP/MSI scholar. So, on this podcast, we definitely use a lot of abbreviations, and just so our audience can understand what that is, can you break down what that is and what you’re currently doing? 

Alexandra Grayson: [00:12:22] Yeah. So, NOAA’s EPP/MSI undergraduate scholarship program. Um, EPP/MSI is the Educational Partnership Program for Minority Serving Institutions. And it’s a part of NOAA’s Office of Education and they have an undergraduate scholarship program. They also fund, uh, you know, Howard’s NCAS-M and, um, the program, the ETSP program that we did. 

So, yeah. Um, but that’s definitely supported me a lot financially. Just to go back to our last question, um, uh, testing a bit last summer, I worked with NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information on a project related to, um, the public health implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially related to the West Coast’s flawed fires and evacuation policies that were happening over there, and how they were addressing it and, you know, fire camps and things like that. 

Um, and so as a part of the project, as a part of those scholarships, we also conduct research throughout the year. And so, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Dr. Terry Adams in Howard’s Sociology Department on a project related to how people perceive, um, weather information. 

Camryn Billett: [00:13:36] Right.  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:13:38] So that’s been pretty cool and fun to join in on that project and, you know, be able to work on a survey building and, um, all of that with different students and postdocs at Howard. 

Um, yeah, and then so this summer I am kind of getting back into like mussels’ territory. I wanted to build on some skills I gained in some biology classes I took this year. I was in art, um, while you’re in spring semester. So, I’m working on a meta-analysis of benthic species abundance at offshore wind farms. Um, and so I started on my literature search during my winter break, but you know, it’s, yeah. There are lots of, you know, muscles, crustaceans, and things like that that come toward, um, in bio foul at offshore wind farms. So I’m just looking at different studies related to that this summer, and then next year we’ll be working on like a community service project. 

And so I’ll probably start some planning for that a bit into the summer, but it’s a really great opportunity. It has helped me financially a lot.  

Camryn Billett: [00:14:47] Um, yeah.  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:14:48] College is not cheap, especially not Howard. It’s nice to have that support and also nice to have the opportunity to work at NOAA and to continue building those skills and learning the agency and, um, get that professional development. Hopefully we can all meet in person one day cause I have not seen these people, um, and have not been to NOAA headquarters yet. 

Camryn Billett: [00:15:10] Listen, this virtual thing. Oh, I’m ready for it to be over it. I’m fully vaccinated, so I’m ready to be outside. You know what I’m saying?  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:15:21] I definitely do. Yeah, um, I’m ready to hopefully do some sort of in-person work or at least see people once, but that opportunity has been pretty nice. Um, and I don’t think I would’ve been prepared for it, or maybe even gotten it had I not done the ETSP program that we did.  

Camryn Billett: [00:15:44] Definitely. Definitely. I hear you. And it sounds like you’re doing amazing work. Um, just to segue into our very last question. You mentioned that you’re going to be working on a project next year. Um, what do you plan on doing post-grad, and how has NOAA shaped that?  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:15:59] Yeah. So post-grad, I plan to go get a PhD.  

Camryn Billett: [00:16:07] Okay.  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:16:08] Climate science policy type of fields, something interdisciplinary. My major is interdisciplinary at Howard. I think it’s shaped me a lot. I have to hone in on some questions and I’m applying to some master’s programs as well, but the plan is to go straight to grad school. Fingers crossed. 

So I think that was definitely, definitely shaped that, um, you know, even like right after the ETSP program. You know, it was like, okay, I reached out to professors in my department, started doing research on campus, and that lab experience, um, was working. You were working on particulate matter and connecting that to gentrification in the DC area. And that experience, people I know do similar work. Um, it also, and that professor and other students have gone into PhD programs and have encouraged me to do the same. And so I think, that along with my, I don’t think I would have took the initiative to join, uh, to join a research lab unless I had done that ETSP program after my freshman year. 

Um, and so I think it NOAA’s definitely pushed me into a research direction. Whereas when I came into Howard as a poli-sci major, I was like, I like environmental policy. Keep me away from the science. I don’t want it. It’s just like, okay, you can do it. It’ll be fine. And you know, there are lots of different types of scientists. There are social scientists. There are hard scientists.   

Camryn Billett: [00:17:42] And that’s the, that’s the beauty of internships and just, you know, just getting your feet wet while you’re in college, you can actually see, you know, some things. I feel like in college, you’re more inclined to try more things because once you, once you graduate, it’s kind of like, I don’t know if I haven’t like, you have to be very selective with your, your tries but college, for sure. 

Definitely. I mean, this internship helped me know what I didn’t want to do and also what I wanted to do cause I changed my major. But in Dr. Saki teaching us computer science, my minor, I changed my minor to computer science. I love computer science. So yeah, this is the, this is the beauty of just not only internships but NOAA’s internships specifically, but yeah. 

So, for the audience out there, you know, if you’ve listened this far, just know we are in good hands. And also, if you listen to some of our other episodes, um, yeah, like I’ll say it again, we are in good hands. The future is looking bright for all of our NCAS-M employees, fellows, students, interns. And I can just really see that the goal for all of them is to create and cultivate a better world for all of us, and that’s really admirable. And Alexandra, I just want to thank you again for coming on to this podcast.  

Alexandra Grayson: [00:18:58] Thank you for having me.  

Camryn Billett: [00:19:00] Of course, we hope you enjoy today’s conversation with Alexandra and learned something new about NCAS-M. If you could see yourself studying something and working on a project that has to do with atmospheric science, environmental science, oceanic science, even communications. As always, there’s a place here for you, and we encourage you to apply at ncas-m.org. Again, that is ncas-m.org. We hope to see you soon.