While sea otters once thrived within kelp forests, bays and coastal waters of western North America, their populations were devastated by the fur trade in the 1700s and 1800s. Although small populations persist today in California and along the coastline between Washington and Alaska, sea otters have not existed in Oregon for more than a century. AAAS Member Dominique Kone is working to change that.
Kone’s research for his master’s degree at Oregon State University involves laying the groundwork for the potential reintroduction of sea otters along the coast of Oregon. “There’s a lot of interest around reintroducing sea otters, but there are a lot of questions that we need to answer before we actually do that. I’m essentially doing an assessment of various ecological factors and implications of potentially bringing sea otters back to Oregon,” Kone explains.
One important aspect of Kone’s research involves assessing the interactions between humans and sea otters because human activity can change sea otter behavior and put added stress on the species. Notably, sea otters and humans can potentially impede on each other’s fishing ground.
Ecological impacts of reintroducing sea otters to the Oregon coast must also be understood. Kone is analyzing all the available literature capturing what’s known about sea otters in other regions and timescales. For example, while it’s known that sea otters feed on sea urchins and consequentially reduce those populations, this has the potential to increase the abundance of kelp forests, which sea urchins feed on.
Using all these data, Kone is working to identify habitats along the coast that would be suitable for sea otters if they were to be re-introduced in Oregon. The results will influence sea otter restoration efforts and help Kone realize his goals of applying science to policy.
“I couldn't image doing anything else,” he says. “Working at this boundary between science and policy has allowed me to be creative and strategic in the way that I conduct my research and think about how best to address really complicated issues. This field can be complex and daunting at times, but that's exactly what gets me excited.”
Not only does Kone care about how scientists develop projects and work with policy makers to implement science-based policy, but he also works to promote diversity and inclusion in STEM. As a gay black man, he is an underrepresented minority in the science community. He participated in 500 Queer Scientists, a visibility campaign where LGBTQ+ scientists volunteered to share their stories of working in STEM.
“I think it's really important to show that so many of us are currently working and studying in STEM. It not only increases our visibility, but it demonstrates that scientists can come in so many different forms, shapes and from a diversity of groups,” he explains.
For other LGBTQ+ members who feel like they are struggling to fit in the world of STEM, Kone encourages perseverance and wants them to know that they are not alone. He says that he does feel supported as a young scientist, but there are some additional hurdles related to race and sexual orientation that occur when working in STEM. While he has noticed that some progress has been made in recognizing the multitude of barriers that people of color face, he feels that there has been less progress when it comes to recognizing challenges around sexual orientation.
Visibility and representation are important, Kone says, but he also notes that diversity does not solely mean reaching a quota for gender, race and sexual orientation. “A piece of the puzzle would be making sure that people in these spaces that come from some underrepresented minority group are valued and feel heard,” he says.
Although he is early on in his career, Kone says that by going to grad school and by being open and proud of who he is, he hopes it will be empowering for other people who are considering joining a STEM field or going to grad school, but may be concerned or hesitant because of their race or sexuality.
“I hope that the fact that I’m gay and the fact that I’m black demonstrates and sends a message to younger people who perhaps identify in a similar way that they can also break into the field and progress and excel the same way I have,” he says. “If my story impacts only one person, that would be really rewarding for me.”