by Robert Barossi
Today, I’m posting a third chapter from my upcoming book, which I plan to self-publish as an eBook, hopefully in the next few weeks. Here is one of my favorite chapters, the story of a passionate and inspiring environmental volunteer I met in Newport, RI.
Rising Tide of Awareness: Julie Frost
A self-described “nature and science freak from a very early age,” volunteer Julie Frost grew up in Atlanta where she says she “climbed trees every single day.” Sitting with her on her back patio at her house in Newport, Rhode Island, it quickly became clear that this transplant from Georgia had not lost any of her southern charm. Also clear was her passion for environmental issues and a sincere and powerful desire to really do something about what she sees happening to our planet.
The youngest of four kids, she points to going outside as something that may have been playtime by necessity, a means to keep one’s self occupied at a young age. It’s clear, though, that her connection to and love for nature and the outdoors was something deeper, more than just a way to occupy her youthful free time. After a childhood filled with tree climbing, beach vacations on the coast of Georgia and camping trips, she says she developed an even deeper connection to the outdoors later, on her own, especially at college. At Eckerd College in Florida, she began to study Marine Sciences, a field she was drawn to by the idyllic thought of playing with whales and dolphins, along with her love of the oceans, animals and nature.
“And then I get to college and you realize it’s not all beautiful wonderful swimming with dolphins kind of stuff,” Julie says. “I had to take marine invertebrate biology my freshman year and spend hours drawing a crab shell, you know, getting the design perfectly and go through all the classification. It’s that time in your life when you’re nineteen or twenty and playing with your friends is just as important and you’re getting serious about choosing your career and all of this is coming together and thinking about what the job looks like and the fact
that you’re signing yourself up for just grueling research for years on end and some of it’s not going to be glamorous. So, by the time I was hitting my junior year, I was realizing that this line of work meant signing up for a doctoral program, it meant slugging away, and I just didn’t have the maturity at that time to stick to it, I really didn’t.”
While obtaining her degree in biology, Julie says, she still kept in touch with her “marine side,” taking classes such as marine mammalogy during junior year. “We did some phenomenal stuff. I got to stay pretty tapped in with the marine side because the school that I was at was so strong in marine biology. I don’t regret the decision. My hindsight on it now, I’m forty-one, so I’ve had some time to think about these decisions. In all reality, I just wasn’t mature enough at the time and the idea of not having the flexibility to have jobs that would bring in more income. I grew up with a family that didn’t have a ton of money so as an adult I was just drawn to the idea of having something that would give me a little bit more income.”
Now, Julie works as a scientist for the biotech company Amgen, where she’s been for eleven years. “For some reason, it’s important to me to call it a biotech and not a pharmaceutical company,” she says. It comes after a series of jobs that allowed her to put the biology background into meaningful and important work, especially in the area of AIDS research.
“My senior year I got a job off campus at a children’s hospital and ended up in a lab and this was at a time when the AIDS epidemic was really hitting and I started to get drawn towards that world and I realized that I was really interested in immunology,” she says. “So I didn’t get any more advanced degrees but I took some classes and learned a lot through the jobs I had in that world.” She and her husband moved around a bit after that, with Julie working primarily in laboratories, testing water and soil samples or doing research into AIDS/HIV vaccine development. A move from academia to industry brought her to Amgen and Rhode Island.
After they settled in Newport, Julie began to look for her next volunteer outlet. She says that at that time, it made the most sense to find something that would take her back to the outdoors. Roughly ten years ago, she became involved with Save the Bay, when they were working on eelgrass transplantation in Narragansett Bay. She describes her early involvement with the organization as sporadic over most of those years, working one-off events rather than committing to a long-term program.
“I think slowly over the years I realized I needed to be back in touch with the marine side of things, you know, I needed to fulfill that itch that I had gone away from,” Julie says. “And because of living in a coastal community and so many of our activities are based around water, our love of everything we do, sailing, surfing, kayaking, or just taking a bike ride around Ocean Drive…I genuinely care about the ecosystem and of course I did from an early age identify with spending time at the water. I learned through some early volunteer experiences with birds or with hospice that it’s good to volunteer and do whatever you can do, but you generally don’t stick with it just because it’s a good thing to do. You don’t stick with it unless it really, really hits you. It really means something to you personally.”
Getting back in touch with something that meant a lot to her personally began with helping Save the Bay transplant eelgrass for several years in a row. She describes the project as “an important program for helping to rebuild the base of the ecosystem,” adding that, “eelgrass allows a good place for invertebrates and mollusks and stuff like that. So once you develop that eelgrass bed, you’re really setting the foundation, and it helps with CO2 exchange an also I think trapping some pollutants. I think there’s even some evidence that it helps with the water not overwarming because it will filter the sunlight.”
One of the exciting things, Julie adds, was the ability to see the results of the eelgrass transplanting and the direct impact it had on Narragansett Bay. “For one, I could observe what was going on with areas like that just form my experiences with being out on the water, especially with kayaking. You really see stuff like that up close. You see mussel beds and sea stars and you see how clear the water is or you see trash floating in the water. So, I think doing the eelgrass work made me clue into it even more when I was out. We went, my husband and I, went to a seminar, a couple of different seminars, where we saw the data come back after four years of them doing this kind of program and saw which transplant beds had taken off and done well and which ones hadn’t and water quality data that had paired up with that. That was really neat, to have been part of that program and then see the data that they tabulated. That was really neat, to actually see it come to fruition.”
“I think over the years I’ve matured a little bit to be able to commit more of my time to it,” Julie says of volunteering. “In the earlier days it was just here and there, I’ll do this one little thing or I’ll do that one little thing. Then I actually jumped over to an organization for a couple of years that’s very informal, really just a bunch of surfers that wanted to protect the water quality around the local beaches because surfers were getting sick. They’re called Clean Ocean Access, very small group just based here in Newport but they’re fairly active. One of the things they do is they have a water testing program and it’s a little more extensive and they keep it up all year round. They basically augment the data that the Department of Environmental Management is getting and they give it to the state and they do a full annual report of all their data. So, I was collecting water samples for them for about a year and half right over here at King Park. When I did the water sampling, that was the first time I committed to a program, where on this day, every week, you have to go and do this thing and they’re relying on you and you can’t bail, but it only took me ten minutes to do. It was a baby step. And then from there something clicked and I really wanted to do something more serious with Save the Bay.”
That something materialized into working as a docent at Save the Bay’s aquarium. Julie says it came at just the right time in her life, when she wasn’t dealing with other craziness, knew she wouldn’t be making a career change any time soon, and knew what kind of free time she had. When we spoke, she was heading into her fourth winter as a docent, spending half a day, every other Sunday, educating kids and families about marine life and ecosystems.
“And this goes back to you have to find the right thing. That did it, that was the right thing,” she adds. “First of all, the realization that I was willing to commit my time to it in the winter but not in the summer and I just had to be realistic about that. This is a really good fit for me, I get to sit there and play with animals in the aquarium and I get to work with these little kids and this has become a really important thing for me. Getting in front of families and kids and trying to make that spark happen and trying to make that awareness happen. That is so important and if you hit it with a four year old, you got ‘em, you got ‘em forever, if you really see that light bulb go off. That just gives back to me every single time I’m there.
Julie calls time spent at the aquarium “pretty free-form,” as she works at five stations, including an arts and crafts center, walk-through exhibits and a touch tank that allows kids to directly interact with the marine ecosystem. Her favorite, she says, is the touch tank, where she says, “The kids really tend to go nuts over that stuff.”
Within the last year, Julie has also begun helping Save the Bay with another important project, something she says has really opened her eyes. “One other thing I added on this last year was water rise monitoring and tide monitoring. They have this program to document certain areas around the state, basically by taking pictures, and they give you the times of the full moon high tides. That’s when they want you to take pictures so they can see when they have bad flooding events either due to rain or some other kind of weather event but also just to see year over year where the tides are, where they are hitting. And as I’ve been on my own learning more and more about the changes in the ecosystem and global warming of course, I’ve gotten more interested in understanding what’s happening. And the fact that we own a house that’s two feet above sea level, does kind of make me a little nervous.”
As a tide monitor, Julie goes to the same spot every month and tries to get the same photo at the same angle, from a number of different perspectives. She does this at a couple of area locations, including King Park, Second Beach, and near Third Beach. Taking pictures at each spot allows Save the Bay to see where tides are rising, in relation to fixed points, such as a section of wall along the beach. Describing what she has seen while taking these photos, she calls it “scary, scary stuff.”
“Why is it scary stuff?”
“This has really opened my eyes,” Julie says. “Most of the work that I did was from March through July. They mainly focus on it in the spring but they do it year round for all the full moon high tides. I knew things were changing around here, since we’ve lived in this house in particular. I knew things were changing but that really brought a new awareness to it. When we bought this house in 2000, I don’t remember this ever happening…my husband and I are trying to think of the first times we ever saw this happening and I think it’s been within the last five years. When we get a really high tide, the sea water bubbles up out of the sewers. The first couple of times that we saw it…we saw it happening over the past couple of years but didn’t make big mental notes about it cause I wasn’t doing this program…but when I was taking the pictures and doing it…one of the first times I had documented it coming out of the sewer, there had been this torrential downpour. We had tons and tons of rain, so I thought, ‘oh, ok, big rain event, spring flood tides, then the street’s getting wet.’ It wasn’t raining when it happened but there had been a lot of rain and it was spring, so maybe there was a lot of runoff. And then the next month, there hadn’t been any rain and it was completely dry out and seawater was bubbling up out of the sewers. So that told me this is really changing. Other than big storm surges, we don’t remember ever seeing the water so close to coming over the sea wall over there. And now, just at a really big spring high tide, it looks like it’s about to breach the sea wall.”
While her own awareness has been elevated, Julie is doubtful that her neighbors are as aware of what’s happening. “I’m really, really nervous about that,” she says. “This is Rhode Island, we’re so coastal, all the way up to Providence and people really need to understand this. I feel like our whole planet is threatened right now. For many people, we’re starting to rally because it’s real and it’s very obvious and we’re also nervous about the fact that there are so many people who are either not awake to the fact that this is happening, or there are actually people who think that we are making it all up.”
“Part of me is really pessimistic about it and part of me is optimistic because I think I have seen some shift,” Julie says. “I think the red and blue politics that I’ve seen during my adulthood is really, really scary but despite that…I also see something happening in the middle and something about connections, some people trying to be more connected with each other and some people really concerned about where our society is going. I think part of the key is that those of us who are the early adopters to understanding global climate change, to saying there’s something wrong with our society and we’re too much of that and not enough of this…there’s a small population of us saying all this and being awake to the idea that we’re going to make a little difference and this can change and we have hope. So, if we just keep meeting with each other and keep taking small steps, little by little by little, that spreads. We think that in the last ten years we’ve barely made a dent and then, all of a sudden, everybody’s on board. As a volunteer and a citizen who is concerned about the environment, when I get pessimistic, I think to that incremental process and where you see something that all of a sudden…I think that’s really the key. I guess we have to believe that.”
Julie was one of the few volunteers I spoke with who did have an educational and career background in the sciences, which she brings to the debate and the volunteer work. “Is the chance to keep learning part of the motivation to keep volunteering, and trying to reach people,” I ask her.
“Absolutely,” she responds. “And that’s why it’s a good fit and that’s why I’ve realized it’s important. You know, I don’t think that volunteerism is for anyone, not for many people, as altruistic as it sometimes sounds. You’re looking for something that works for you that you get something out of that makes you feel good. Turning people on to the fact that this is important to pay attention to this stuff, that we need to take care of our animals and our beaches and our waters, that’s important to me. So when I see that light up with somebody, I just feel good, I feel good that I connected. I am one of those people that I just, I want to learn, I am very curious, that’s a huge piece of it. When I’m looking at an exhibit with a family or at the touch tank and they ask a question and I don’t know the answer, for some people they feel very awkward, as a docent they’re supposed to know the answer. But for me, that’s just perfect, because they thought of a question that I don’t know the answer to. It’s definitely an opportunity for me to learn more and just be excited about understanding animals and the marine ecosystems that I was drawn to a long time ago.”
Julie admits that volunteering with Save the Bay is also helping her to plot her future path, build her resume and work towards a possible eventual career change. She adds that at the same time, it’s also given her the chance to be immersed in the issues she’s passionate about, such as the impacts of a changing climate. Many people who come to the aquarium, she says, share her feelings on those kinds of issues.
“It’s interesting the diversity you get because the parents select this as an activity they’re going to do with their kids on a cold, rainy Saturday or Sunday, so the parents know this is a good thing to do and expose their kids to,” Julie says. “Sometimes, though, the parents decide to do it because they got a Groupon or they just can’t think anything else to do with their kid. They’re not necessarily doing it because….they kind of look at it as the same thing as going to the zoo…a lot of people think of it like going to an amusement park. So we do get parents like that but you know, a parent who is spending the money and the time to come up with an activity and take their kid someplace is a parent who kind of already gets it. Generally they fall into that category. Now, you’ll see them be completely stunned about stuff we tell them. They’ll be surprised that there’s this much going on or that something as simple as having a really old leaky lawnmower contributes to runoff that goes into our bay. And so you realize that you get people who have so many different levels of awareness about what we need to do to protect our ecosystem.”
“Even the kids, they already have that awareness or understanding?”
“I think so,” Julie replies. “When they have field trips of school kids that come to the aquarium, and it’s like the whole third grade class, then they probably see more of the population who might not be aware at all or might be more resistant. I don’t do that kind of work with them; I just see the people who just walk in on their own. I think that might be more what I want to do, to work with programs in inner cities where you’re tapping into the kids who have no idea what a beach even looks like. And their parents are working two jobs and don’t have time to tell them how important recycling is or something like that. So that might be where I want to go and I’m sure that’s extremely challenging to get those light bulbs to go on.”
Until then, she continues to work for Narragansett Bay, a place she has a deep, emotional connection to. She says, “So much of my recreational time…but beyond that, my meditative time is spent in that arena. That is where I go when I need to nurture my soul. It is, it’s really, firmly in my heart, that I need that time. It’s what replenishes me, to be outside at sunset, staring at the water, watching waves, watching birds fly around. Every winter we get some harbor seals, watching that. Watching other people be outside, turning off their phones and getting away from their computers and the TV and all that and just having that quiet, real connection with our planet. So, at a surface level, it’s the recreation that’s really fun, I just spent two hours in the morning surfing, it’s really, really fun. But the connection for me is very, very deep because it’s nourishing. It’s nourishing to just spend quiet time outside.”