Erika McPhee-Shaw, who grew up in the home of an ice scientist, explored a variety of interests before she emerged with what the affable scientist calls her mission to "watch the water" for important environmental developments.
McPhee-Shaw was recently named director of Western Washington University's nationally recognized Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes. She will assume her duties in June.
An associate professor at San Jose State University, McPhee-Shaw teaches marine science in a master's degree program out of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories for students in seven California state universities.
A valedictorian and student body officer at Naches High School, she holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Dartmouth and a doctorate in oceanography from the University of Washington.
Her appointment follows the retirement of Steve Sulkin.
Question: Erika, what's one of your main goals at Shannon Point?
Answer: I'd like to work toward more local and regional educational outreach, both for students and community members. I'd like to expand the infrastructure and invite the public in more.
I also want to expand cooperation with various departments at Western, and I'll spend one or two days a week on the main campus.
Q: You seem excited about Shannon Point.
A: I really am excited. I've always been impressed with Western since I would visit my sister, Keelan McPhee, when she was a student there. I've always been impressed with Huxley College. I'm looking forward to working with a faculty that has built a national reputation for research and teaching.
It's the people who work at Shannon Point who make me excited; they are cutting-edge people in marine science.
Q: Why should students consider a career in marine science?
A: Marine science involves so many issues we'll confront in the future: pollution, the land-sea interface, climate change. People need to know the ocean is the "lungs" of our planet.
Q: What was it like growing up with an ice scientist?
A: My father, Miles McPhee, was going to the Arctic since I was a baby. He was really experiencing for himself that the ice was disappearing from one decade to the next. He was aware of climate change very early.
He would bring home wonderful pictures of polar bears, among other fascinating sights. In a home like that, you end up with a brain that asks a lot of questions.
Q: What was it like for a woman majoring in physics at Dartmouth more than two decades ago?
A: There were only three other girls in my cohort, but I stuck with it. It was a big deal to go from Naches to the challenging environment of Dartmouth.
Q: How did you connect physics and oceanography?
A: I once worked with the U.S. Forest Service in the summer. My job involved stream surveying for salmon habitat. I fell in love with fluid mechanics and sediment transport, with watching the water.
That's when I decided to pursue a doctorate in oceanography. You know, water and physics are not too far apart. The physics of electricity and water circulation are similar.
Q: How would you describe an oceanographer to a young student?
A: As an oceanographer I'm like a meteorologist of the ocean. We forecast storms in the ocean and examine how water moves around. We look at oxygen, nutrients, sediment, and their connection to marine life.
Q: What's been one of your favorite projects?
A: Two National Science Foundation projects, with one involved in deep-water research off the continental slope, researching sub-surface wave heights of hundreds of meters. Fascinating stuff.
For details about Shannon Point Marine Center, go to wwu.edu/spmc.