Student Spotlight: Jenny Renee

Hard work and grit characterize Jenny Renee. No stranger to challenges, Jenny has traversed an untraditional path and become an enthusiastic advocate for ocean conservation.

Jenny in her element on a field trip to the coast.
Jenny Renee
Jenny Renee in her element, on a field trip to the Olympic coast.

Name: Jenny Renee
Majors: Environmental Studies and Oceanography
Hometown: Corpus Christi, Texas

Raised by a loving mother who juggled a career and three kids, Jenny grew up with limited resources and never thought about a future career protecting the environment. She moved with her family to Seattle at a young age, receiving support from her mother’s family, descendants from Mexico.

High school was a struggle for Jenny until she attended Seattle Middle College during her senior year, an alternative high school on a college campus. Here, she gave learning a second chance and thrived in a more personalized and supportive educational setting.

From boot camp to college

At 17 Jenny started scuba diving and also signed up to join the Coast Guard to become a rescue swimmer. Unfortunately, regulations prevented her from joining. She decided to start community college but kept pursuing her goals, and two years later joined the Navy, embracing the discipline and rigor of boot camp. She taught fellow recruits and was thrilled to be promoted twice. Her secret to success: Work hard, play the game, embrace the pain and keep smiling.”

Despite Jenny’s commitment to her work and her ease at building relationships, the challenges continued. Due to an oversight in her application, Jenny was discharged from the Navy, just days before boot camp graduation. She was devastated and found herself on her own, with very few possessions and no place to live.

She moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, and was on food stamps, working retail, mechanics, plumbing and administrative jobs. All the while, her dream of being a rescue swimmer for the Navy drove her to appeal the Navy’s decision, a task that would last over a year. She wrote to the State’s senators and head officers in the Navy, to no avail.

Undeterred by the reality that she’d have to pivot on her career goals, Jenny kept scuba diving, volunteering (at the Seattle Aquarium), attending community college and working full-time to make ends meet.

Eye to eye with an octopus

One night while diving, Jenny encountered a giant Pacific octopus sitting on a cement block, 90 feet down in the water; they stared at each other for what seemed like eternity.

“That magical moment sparked the fire, and in that moment I knew; this is why I need to protect the environment” reminisced Jenny.

Jenny in her scuba gear at the Seattle Aquarium
Jenny at the Seattle Aquarium after a dive in the Underwater Dome exhibit.

Jenny applied to UW, speaking to advisers about her interests, and opted for the Environmental Studies major to get a broad range of knowledge on natural and social sciences. She also took many oceans and fisheries classes. One of her most memorable classes was Rivers & Beaches, taking her outside of the classroom on field trips where she saw parts of the state she’d never encountered. She also met her first mentor at UW, a grad student who encouraged her to keep asking questions and to remain curious.

Through UW, Jenny spent a quarter at Friday Harbor Labs, focusing on marine biology. The experience taught her she did really well in the field. She was inspired to pursue a second degree in Oceanography, and empowered to tackle all the math that came her way. She was even offered a coveted lab assistant position at Charles Nittrouer’s UW Sediment Dynamics Lab, an opportunity she says wouldn’t have materialized had she not led with curiosity or listened to her mentor. In addition to the quarter in marine biology, Jenny returned to Friday Harbor Labs for a marine sediment apprenticeship, and a scientific diving course.

Capstone: creating a culturally relevant science education program

Now back on the Seattle campus, Jenny is busy with and excited about her Environmental Studies Capstone. Through her capstone internship with NOAA, Jenny gets to dive into environmental education, a component of Environmental Studies she hasn’t yet experienced. The project entails creating culturally relevant place-based lesson plans for the Pribilof Island communities in Alaska, located in the middle of the Bering Sea. The lesson plans will focus on Blue King Crab which have historical economic importance to the community, but are in decline. The education plans are part of NOAA’s education outreach research requirement. Jenny is working with a local organization on the islands called ECO, and is creating plans for kids in K-5.

Jenny’s research asks: How do we develop effective science education plans for underrepresented communities that are most adversely impacted by the decline of Blue King Crab? Her lessons will incorporate everything from the significance of the crabs to the community and natural environment, to climate change and oceanography.

Jenny examining a retrieved tripod from Freshwater Bay on the R/V Barnes.
Emily Eidam
Jenny aboard the R/V Barnes during her sediment research apprenticeship, examining a tripod retrieved from Freshwater Bay off the Elwah River.

Working remotely and answering these questions in the 10 weeks that the Capstone internship typically lasts is not enough time, and Jenny understands that to serve a community, she must spend time in that community. She has extended her internship and in October she will travel to St. Paul, one of the Pribilof Islands, for Bering Sea Days, a week long science week for children, where notable scientists from the region present their research to kids in elementary and middle school. Jenny will teach her pilot lesson plan on blue king crab life cycles, and gather feedback to then modify and strengthen what she calls her building toolkit.

“This internship is like going in as a contractor to build a house. I have my toolbox of materials but I need to consult with the residents and build something that they will use.”

Jenny plans to present her internship research at the North Pacific Research Board conference next year. When she graduates, she knows her work will focus on ocean conservation, and she’s prepared to embrace all the bumps in the road she’ll no doubt encounter.

Words of advice to new students

In Jenny’s own words:

Jenny on a hike with friends.
Jenny Renee
Jenny on a hike to Granite Falls with some Environmental Studies friends.

Don’t be afraid to take a class, apply for a job, or program because you think you’re not qualified. Hard work, curiosity, resilience, and passion go a long way. Maybe you won’t be qualified – you’ll still gain experience applying. And maybe you will qualify, and it’ll become the most enriching part of your time at the UW. Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries!

Try to figure out what you’re good at. What inspires you? Try a little bit of everything if you can, because you can’t know until you try! And ask questions!

I know people tell you to “network” because it’s important, but what does that really mean? It can mean anything from telling someone that you liked their presentation, to taking the seat next to the professor on field trips, to talking to the person standing next to you in line for a UW sponsored event. Networking can mean talking with professors and TA’s during office hours, ask them about their research (people love talking about themselves!). Networking doesn’t have to be scary or hard, and you’d be surprised where you can find support and mentors, they’re everywhere and waiting to meet you!