By Gillen Curren, CPO CEE Division
This article concludes a series of interviews with NOAA Climate Program Office (CPO) employees and CPO-funded scientists in celebration of Women’s History Month.
Jen at Dewey Beach Sprint Triathlon, “Ready to Race.”
Image credit: Jennifer Dopkowski
Jennifer Dopkowski is the OAR program manager for the Climate and Fisheries Adaptation (CAFA) program, a cross-line office partnership between CPO’s Climate and Societal Interactions (CSI) division and NOAA Fisheries. As the program manager, Jen oversees projects that advance understanding of climate-related impacts on living marine resources and the communities that depend on them to inform the adaptation and resilience of fishing communities and support sustainable fisheries management. Her responsibilities include designing and running interdisciplinary research competitions. Jen also supports a national interdisciplinary Community of Practice for CAFA principal investigators and their funded projects. In addition to her accomplishments as a program manager, Jen is an amateur sprint triathlete and cyclist. She is currently training for her 14th and 15th triathlons.
“There are always challenges,” Jen says, “but there is always the opportunity to reinvent and think outside of the box.”
Our conversation follows.
Can you talk about your career path?
I have a background in communications, coastal ecology, and biology. Before joining NOAA, I worked in tidal wetland restoration for the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Then, at NOAA, I started at the National Weather Service, working on the Coasts, Estuaries, and Oceans Program. I have always been interested in the intersection of coasts, education, and outreach. In 2009, I came to the Climate Program Office. I worked in the Director’s Office, managing our Climate Working Group. During that time, I had the opportunity to go on a detail to the Chesapeake Bay Office to serve as the climate resiliency coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Partnership Program. When I came back from that detail, I became a member of the Climate and Societal Interactions Division, supporting the COCA and SARP programs and our water risk area portfolio. Three years ago, I had the opportunity to become the program manager for the CAFA program.
Can you talk about how your work intersects with environmental justice?
The CAFA program typically puts out a call for proposals every three years that focuses on key adaptation and resilience topics of relevance to fishing communities and sustainable fisheries management. Recently, we’ve conducted a series of engagements with community stakeholders to inform the Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) and give us some insight into what areas we might address. In this latest call, we focus on two types of proposals. The first type are multidisciplinary research projects designed to understand the impacts of climate variability and change on marine ecosystems and tools/strategies to promote adaptation of fisheries and communities that depend on them. The second type focuses on participatory research that advances understanding of climate adaptation and resilience of frontline fishing communities–communities that are dependent on fishing economically, socially, or culturally.
What is your favorite memory of your work with CAFA?
When I started in this position, we had just funded our FY20 projects and begun the monthly Community of Practice meetings. I think what gave me the most joy were those conversations during the Community of Practice meetings. The discussions were so rich because we had folks who were biophysical scientists and/or social scientists, and we had people at the intersection of both of those areas. They were not only talking about how we can better inform fisheries management, but also how we can better inform decision making for communities. We’re going to be building on that in this FY23 call.
Image credit: Jennifer Dopkowski
How do you feel your current work fits in with the New Blue Economy from the new NOAA Strategic Plan?
We’re not just looking at informing fisheries management, but also how the work that we’re doing better informs frontline fishing and community adaptation. Fishing communities include large-scale commercial fishers as well as subsistence, tribal and indigenous, and small-scale community fishers. It’s an opportunity for us to better understand the interactions, impacts, and vulnerabilities of marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on them in a changing climate.
What advice would you give to your younger self or to a woman just starting out in her career?
It’s funny because tomorrow I’m going to my son’s school to present on Career Day and I’m trying to think about what advice I would give a third-grader. I think my advice is this: always be brave. Be curious. Ask a lot of questions. And if someone tells you that you can’t do it, figure out a way to do it as best you can. Novel things happen in this world when somebody is brave enough and creative enough to try something different.
Jen, her son Zachary, and dog Everest camping at Rehoboth Beach.
Image credit: Jennifer Dopkowski
What are some challenges/setbacks you have faced this year? How have you been able to adapt?
As a program manager, I think the challenge is that in the latest CAFA NOFO, there are many well-written proposals but we don’t have an infinite pot of money and we can’t fund them all. I’m encouraged by all the great work that is currently being done in the CAFA Program and look forward to seeing the Program expand and grow.
In general, when I’m faced with a challenge, I find it’s really important to remember that a setback is just a series of circumstances right now. Everything is going to look different tomorrow. Address the setback the best you can, recognizing that, sometimes, setbacks are not always bad. Sometimes, that setback actually turns out to be an opportunity.
How has your idea of success changed over the course of your career?
At the beginning of my career, I was always focused on milestones, like getting my degree and getting my first job. I think now it’s more about seeing the rewards of the work that is done versus just checking the box on a milestone. The reward is also seeing that ripple effect of people being inspired by and building on the work that has been done.
Could you talk about some female mentors you’ve had throughout your career?
I’ve met some really amazing, talented women in my career. Before I began working at NOAA, I researched offices in NOAA that lined up with my career interests. Peg Brady worked in one of the offices that I was interested in – the Office of Habitat Conservation. We’d never met, but she agreed to have coffee with me to answer questions about career opportunities. For thirty minutes, she answered all my questions and gave me some tips and pointers for finding a job at NOAA. That was almost 20 years ago and we’re still friends. She’s always been incredibly supportive.
My friend, Diane Stanitski, deputy director at Global Monitoring Lab (GML), has also been an inspiration and a mentor. She recruited me to do an event for Earth Day as part of the Adopt a Drifter Program. For the Earth Day Event, I had the opportunity to work with students in the classroom and have them deploy a drifter buoy. Another mentor is Nancy Beller-Sims, retired program manager at CPO. I admire her calm leadership style and her ability to act decisively and maintain a level head during challenging times. The best thing for me has been other women paving the way and providing me opportunities and mentorship. In return, what I try to do now is mentor other individuals in my field.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
I’d like to continue to learn and evolve as a program manager. I want to seek out new opportunities for growth and collaboration. I find it really inspiring seeing people like yourself in a role that you dream about having one day. It motivates me to achieve that goal.
Special thanks to Jennifer Dopkowski for participating in this interview for Women’s History Month at NOAA.