Environmental Scientist: Issy Stinnette

Issy Stinnette has a really cool job: She’s a marine scientist, specializing in estuary science. She talked to The Juggle about what her job actually entails and the winding route that got her there.
Issy Stinnette: nature lover, tree hugger, scientist

Current job title: Restoration Manager at New York/New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program, part of the Hudson River Foundation
Old career: Publishing — Production Associate
Issy on LinkedIn

You’re Never Too Old or Too Stupid to Change Your Career

My friend Issy has a really cool job. She’s a marine scientist, specializing in estuary science (estuary = where rivers meet the ocean, and the brackish region in between). She’s extremely passionate about her work, from the big-picture mission all the way down to the little details. It seems clear that she’s found the right career path.

Issy took a road less traveled to get to where she is today. She started her career in book publishing and liked it. But when she realized it wasn’t what she wanted long term, she dropped everything and made a huge change — and she doesn’t regret a thing.

Here’s what Issy told us about her job and how she got there: 

What do you actually do, day to day?

I work at one of the 28 national estuary programs funded by the EPA. I’m in charge of the restoration program — trying to get habitat restoration projects moving forward.

In some cases, that might mean answering the science questions we need to know beforehand before we can even pursue those restoration projects. Like diving into the science behind things such as the best way to restore oysters or eelgrass, or how to create better habitats on our shorelines because they’re so urbanized and bulkheaded. [Ed. note: Bulkheads are vertical walls placed near the shoreline to protect against erosion. They are viewed as detrimental for many reasons, including that they disrupt the natural ecosystem.]

You didn’t always work in estuary science — what did you do before?

I got out of college and didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I went into book publishing. I was in book publishing for five years, working in production at Random House.

What did you study in college?

Environmental science and creative writing.

Did you like working in publishing?

I did like it. I loved books — I still love books. In production, you work with the physical aspects of the book, which I liked. I liked the technical aspects of the job, and managing all the little details. And it was a fun atmosphere to work in; I was surrounded by a lot of young people. It was a good job.

But it wasn’t enough, why?

I found that I missed science, in addition to feeling like there wouldn’t be a lot of challenge there for me in the future. I could see people who were far senior to me, who were doing very much the same kinds of things that I was doing. And I felt like I had missed out in not pursuing a career in science.

So you quit publishing, and applied to grad school to study marine sciences?

Well, I felt like this was the way I wanted to go, but I hadn’t taken my GRE. I hadn’t done a lot of the prereqs needed to pursue the sciences at the graduate level. So I started taking those classes at night and studying. I took everything from Algebra II to Calculus, which I’d never taken.

Then I applied to grad school and didn’t get in.

What I didn’t know was that, to get into grad school — at least in the sciences and at least in my program — you needed to build a personal relationship with an advisor. Unless someone stands up and says, “I want her in my lab. I will sponsor her to be there — I will use my grant money to bring her in,” you don’t get in. It’s not like undergrad. I had no idea.

I thought, well, I’m already going down this path. I can take these classes as a non-matriculated student. So I did. I signed up for the first classes I needed for my grad degree, as a non-matriculated student, and got the opportunity to prove myself by doing that. And I was able to find an advisor to sponsor me. So the next year I applied again, and I got in.

How did you choose the program and school that you ended up going to?

I knew I wanted to study marine science, and I felt like I had a good thing going here with my life in New York. There were other schools I could have gone to, but this one [Stonybrook, on Long Island] was commutable from Manhattan, and later, Brooklyn, when I moved there. It was a long commute, two and a half to three hours each way by car, but it’s a good school and great program, and it felt doable.

How long did your grad program last?

It actually took me four years, because I had a kid in the middle of it.

What was it like to have a child during this process?

Well, I had a good six to 10 years on the rest of my cohort in my program. Most of the time, that didn’t matter because they were all brilliant and great. But then I had a child, and it was very foreign to them, because they hadn’t reached that part of their lives yet. Kids weren’t on most of their radars yet. It was pretty awkward trying to pump in a shared office.

Luckily, I was able to complete a lot of my grad school at home. When I wasn’t taking classes, I was able to do a lot of my writing and researching for my thesis project from home. With my long commute and new baby in mind, my advisor helped me design a project that didn’t require me to be on campus all the time, which was great.

What do you like the most about your job now? What do you find satisfying?

There are tons of satisfying things. I just feel good about what I’m doing, which is really nice, especially given our current political climate. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m helping to make progress environmentally, when there’s a lot stacked against that kind of progress.

It suits me in a lot of ways: I enjoy geeking out about this stuff. I love writing reports and making graphs and maps. And I enjoy working with people. This is actually not a primary skill set for me, but I enjoy the collaborative nature of the work.

Do you spend much time doing fieldwork, studying the environment up close?

Not in my current job, but I was in the field a lot in my last role. I was mapping ecological zones of certain properties — trying to find out the boundaries between wetlands and non-wetlands, and walking along the boundaries with a GPS.

So you were, what? Out walking in nature in waders and galoshes or something?

Yes. And falling into the mud. And walking through chest-high poison ivy. And picking ticks out of my hair. And I was totally in heaven.

Any advice to aspiring career changers, people who want to scrap everything they’ve done so far?

You’re never too old. I thought I was too old. I felt so old. I’d already spent five years in a totally different industry. It was a huge shift, but I’m so glad I did it.

It’s funny that what you do in the beginning of your career doesn’t seem to matter.

Right, it doesn’t have to matter. You have to do what works for you. Everyone has their own journey.

Put yourself back in your own shoes, when you were first considering making this change. What do you wish you knew?

You’re never too old and you’re never too stupid. I did something that was significantly more challenging. And I’m glad every day that I challenged myself that way.

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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