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Last month, seven students from the Southeast Environmental Research Center‘s CREST CAChE and the Sea Level Solutions Center (SLSC), flew to Washington, DC to represent their student group at the USA Science and Engineering Festival and meet with almost a dozen prestigious science agencies and NGOs.

Christian Lopes and Jason Howard, graduate students at FIU, sat around a charcoal BBQ one day discussing their interests in travel and environmental science and trying to figure out how to expand their professional network. This is when they first conceptualized “SWAGG”, the Student Workshops on Acidification and Greenhouse Gases. Within a few months, the pair had gotten their group sponsored by the FIU Council for Student Organizations (CSO) and had even established a governing board.

The best aspects about the student club is that we are able to share our experiences with interested students. We always thought ‘if we host an event that we love, then others will also become engaged’,” said Lopes.

SWAGG has successfully hosted events with over 50 FIU members ranging from undergraduates to postdocs, of various majors within the College of Arts Sciences and Education. The organization also welcomes relevant distinguished scientists to speak, including Alex Enrich Prast, Kimberly Yates, and Adrienne Sponberg amongst a suite of other excelling leaders. The group also uses club funds to support members’ travel to regional, national and international conferences, including GERS in Pensacola FL, CERF in Providence RI and BCI in Ibiza Spain.

This coming year though, much of the governing board of SWAGG is graduating and will be moving on with new endeavors.

To go out with a bang, the group planned a trip to the nation’s capital. They wanted to take the opportunity to bring members of SWAGG to DC, and have them experience how the city operates as well as highlight the value of science communication for policy integration. Most of the group’s members are scientists at heart, yet they have recognized an increasing communication gap between the sciences and policy. So it was settled, a team of seven members would venture to DC and gain first-hand experience with some of the city’s most prominent government, science, and non-governmental organizations.

During their first week, the students attended the USA Science and Engineering Festival by representing the Institute of Water and Environment at a booth with the Consortium of Aquatic Science Societies (CASS), which includes nine prominent organizations in the aquatic science field. The festival is the largest science outreach event in the country, with over 350,000 people attending. The team planned activities for kids to do at their table about how saltwater intrusion from sea level rise will affect plants. The activity was well received, and it was estimated that the FIU/CASS table reached about 5,000 people over the two days of the festival.

“What I took away from this trip the most was the power of trans-discipline communions. The more you connect with people and share information, the more you are able to learn from one another,” said Helen Roldan, SWAGG member.

The students also set up meetings with various science agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Smithsonian Institution. The group also met with the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, the Climate Reality Project and others leading the front in the support and dissemination of scientific information. In their meetings, they discussed how to engage the public in addressing environmental issues and how to communicate science effectively. They also touched on science policy-related employment and internship opportunities available to them and other FIU students in the future, including meeting with the coordinators of the Knuass Marine Policy Fellowship who gave the undergrads advice on what opportunities to get involved in to be a competitive applicant for the fellowship as a graduate student. 

“This trip was probably the most insightful experience I had in my four and a half years as a graduate student at FIU. Talking to this diverse group of passionate people and finding out how their organization approaches science policy and communication gave me a new perspective on the type of career I want to pursue after I graduate,” said Ben Wilson, PhD student within the FCE LTER in SERC and governing member of SWAGG .

Rose Santana, undergrad at FIU and member of SWAGG, said, “This trip has given me a broader understanding of the scientific community. Not only was it extremely insightful to get to speak to a group of diverse scientists outside of academia and ask them for advice and suggestions in creating our own career path, but even being able to ask current graduate students for advice moving forward as undergraduates was very helpful. Overall, this trip has motivated me to get more involved in clubs and organizations, as I now wish to continue leading the path the SWAGG family has paved out.”

This experience was made possible thanks to support from SERC and CREST CAChE, the SLSC, the FIU Seagrass Ecosystems Research Lab, FIU DC, and FIU CSO.