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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

NE CASC Holds Fellows Retreat

Friday, July 1, 2022

Reviving an annual NE CASC tradition, 20 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from the center’s academic consortium recently assembled in the picturesque Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts for an in-person fellows retreat–NE CASC’s first such gathering since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by NE CASC Fellows Coordinator Brian Yellen, this event, which was held exclusively outdoors, pursued several objectives: to provide participants with insights into local climate adaptation projects, help advance their professional development, and further strengthen the NE CASC community. 

"The retreat proved to be a remarkably affirmative experience,” said Yellen. “Everyone involved with the event–from our fellows to our staff and guest speakers–were excited to be gathering as a community for the first time in more than two years. This energy was especially visible through the way our fellows and speakers enthusiastically engaged with one another throughout our program. It was great to see our fellows learning so much–both from our speakers–and from each other.” 

Over the course of two-and-a-half days from the evening of May 9th through the afternoon of May 11th, NE CASC fellows interacted with a variety of stakeholders and scientists, who illustrated key aspects of their work. On the retreat’s first full day, Carrie Banks, a stream continuity restoration planner from the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, led a tour of area culverts to demonstrate how increasingly extreme precipitation patterns arising from climate change have impaired stream flow through these aging structures. Following the tour, NE CASC research ecologist Toni Lyn Morelli provided participants with a primer on structured decision-making. This presentation helped lay the groundwork for a group exploration of a watershed-scale case study, which NE CASC science coordinator Michelle Staudinger designed to help fellows better understand the tradeoffs and shared goals involved in stakeholder decision making. For this exercise, participants formed several small groups, assumed the roles of various stakeholder groups (farmers, fishermen, historical preservationists, etc) in a fictional watershed to decide how funding from a newly awarded grant would be allocated. 

The second full day of the retreat featured appearances by several guest speakers, including former NE CASC fellow Wiliam DeLuca, who discussed his ongoing research on bird migration for the National Audubon Society while leading an early morning birding walk through the woodlands near the retreat campground. Later that morning, Hank Art, a leader of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, summarized the efforts of his organization to forge a 21-town alliance dedicated to developing a vibrant natural resource-based local economy through forest conservation and sustainable forest management. The day concluded with a hike through the Mohawk Trail State Forest, where NE CASC principal investigator Anthony D’Amato provided an overview of adaptation strategies that facilitate the development of old growth forests and Josh Rapp, a scientist from Mass Audubon, discussed his forest conservation research. 

Throughout the retreat, speakers also reflected on their individual career trajectories to help the fellows better understand how they can position themselves for professional success within the field of climate adaptation science. During these exchanges, a common theme emerged: developing skills in the area of coproduction and stakeholder engagement, though a challenging process, yields significant rewards. This point was succinctly captured by William DeLuca while sharing his recollection of how he secured his “dream job” as a migration ecologist with the National Audubon Society. “When I applied for my current position, I knew that I faced steep competition from many outstanding candidates who may have looked similar to me on paper,” DeLuca recalled. “But I also knew that the significant stakeholder engagement experience I amassed while working on the NE CASC designing sustainable landscapes project would likely play an important role in distinguishing me from the other candidates for the job. So during my interview, I spent a lot of time talking about this experience to illustrate how my relationship-building and coproduction skills would make me uniquely valuable to the National Audubon Society. And that strategy paid off.” 

Summarizing her impression of the retreat, Annette Evans, a postdoctoral researcher at UMass Amherst, said that she “benefited enormously” from all aspects of the program. “The itinerary was beautifully organized and flowed from one really interesting topic to the next,” Evans said. “And witnessing first hand various adaptation initiatives in action was really valuable. But I learned the most from hearing established researchers in adaptation science talk about how they carved out careers for themselves doing what they love. Like other participants in the retreat, I am preparing to enter the job market, so understanding how other members of the NE CASC community have translated their unique skills into secure positions strongly impacted me, making me even more appreciative of my experience as an NE CASC fellow than I already had been.”

Expressing a similar appreciation for the NE CASC community, Andrew Del Santo, a graduate student at UMass Amherst commented that “it was a transformative experience to interact in person with so many fellows that I had previously only gotten to know through my computer screen” during Zoom meetings. “Zoom is obviously a great tool, but there’s no substitute for meeting people outside the confines of a two-dimensional box,” Del Santo said. “The retreat provided a welcome opportunity to strengthen relationships I had been building with other fellows electronically, and as a result I am much more likely to contact them to discuss my research and cultivate collaboration possibilities. Participating in the fellows program has made it clear that relationship-building is a key to moving forward in climate adaptation science. And this retreat definitely played a significant role in facilitating relationships among this cohort of fellows. I’m grateful that NE CASC provided this community-building experience and am thrilled I was able to participate.”