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  • Writer's pictureDavid J. Ruck

Doing More from the Outside than on the Inside.

When I was hired as the videographer for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, I was handed the reigns to a dream job. I would be given my choice of equipment and the resources to procure it, have the opportunity to develop what has evolved into the signature branding and outreach campaign at the office and arguably a model for video outreach at the rest of NOAA, as well as receiving world-class training as a scientific diver within a class of uniformed service members of NOAA Corps, engineers, and researchers trained by former Navy SEALs and US Army divers. I was transformed from a guy with a knack for storytelling into a government-funded machine with all the best tools at my disposal and frequent travel to some of the most remarkable and biologically diverse parts of the ocean and Great Lakes, basically to make take pretty pictures in service to the United States Government and the people it serves. Who would have the audacity to think it could get any better? I was basically required to stay in shape, worked side by side with some of the sharpest minds in policy and ocean science, and collaborated with a team of creative individuals as we zig zagged around the country chasing interesting stories of conservation, discovery, and of cultural significance. So, after three years, I decided to head out on my own. I left my insurance and my paycheck - saddled with student debt - and decided I wasn't fully realizing my potential being attached to one specific office of an agency I realized I only knew the beginnings of.

National Weather Service Logo
National Weather Service

I left NOAA, but I still loved NOAA. The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries was buried in the line office National Ocean Service. Aside from NOS, NOAA is probably most known for the National Weather Service. I never interacted with a meteorologist that I can recall during my three years at NOAA, yet this is the bread and butter work NOAA performs which has given the administration at least some level of a household recognition. All that data that goes into the forecast you get on your morning local news? That's coming from NOAA's National Weather Service. Additionally, NOAA is mapping the oceans, researching climate impacts, protecting endangered species, providing educational resources for classrooms across a range of topics as diverse as the administration itself, and helps ensure our nation's fisheries are sustainable. Sometimes they have to make really unpopular decisions which anger entire industries or regions, but in the interest of conservation and sustainability. Other times they are congratulated for predicting precisely where a hurricane that formed over the Atlantic Ocean will fall ashore and with increasing accuracy can warn specific communities of the need to evacuate by describing future storm surge conditions with their crystal ball, powered by scientific instruments and incredible human beings. All this is to say, I was fascinated by all of that, but wasn't exposed to much of any of it. As a story teller, I felt like there was more I could be doing. But how? I didn't have a road map, but I had a hunch I had the skills to discover for myself what I could be doing which could potentially reach more people than I'd been able to reach and help teach them about the important things this radically under-appreciated agency was performing for the American public, and indeed the globe.

So with an idea and a fierce determination, I spent about a year away from NOAA before I launched my own production company, Great Lakes Outreach Media. I would relocate outside the DC Beltway to my native Michigan to start by focusing on issues facing the Great Lakes. Because of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), millions of dollars are being spent to help the Great Lakes region both recover from years on industrial pollution, but also investing in predictive technologies which are reshaping the way we understand our relationship with the Great Lakes: predicting floods, monitoring harmful algal blooms, developing predictive models which are aiding the energy and shipping industries, as well as helping keep beaches safer and cleaner. There was so much already going on, but no one outside the organizations receiving funding really had much of a clue. So I started working with organizations who were working to clean up and protect the Great Lakes, but started getting more calls from my old NOAA friends about things they were working on and discussing ways we could collaborate.

Scuba équipement
Annual Dive Training for NOAA

I kept up with my NOAA Diver certification, which has allowed me to continue diving for NOAA as a volunteer, mostly helping my colleagues in Alpena, Michigan maintain buoy systems for divers who visit historic shipwrecks. It's kept me in touch with my old friends, but also forced me to stay in shape to operate safely as a professional diver. That allowed me to continue inquiring about NOAA's Great Lakes activities and finding ways to collaborate with NOAA on both projects highlighting their work, as well as going to them as a resource as I explore more deeply some issues impacting the Great Lakes - like Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie. Suddenly, I was involved more with the science side of NOAA than the marine protected areas side, which was feeding my curiosity on a continual basis of how new technologies were helping us not only understand the Great Lakes, but environmental conditions around the United States and beyond.

Harmful Algal Blooms on Lake Erie
Harmful Algal Blooms on Lake Erie are a key focus of NOAA in the Great Lakes

In the mean time, I've become good friends with folks at Detroit Public Television who run a monthly television program "Great Lakes Now", which often focuses on environmental issues or scientific work being done in the Great Lakes. With Great Lakes Now, I have public outlet for the stories I chase around the region, often with the added bonus of being able to shine a light on the work of NOAA and its partners in exploration, conservation, and discovery. I've established a relationship with an established contracting organization who frequently works with NOAA and together we are working on government projects which inform and engage audiences from across the region and beyond. Since leaving NOAA, I've done work for NOAA in Hawaii, Alabama, California, Maryland, DC, New York, Vermont, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. In the coming months, I'll be in six states doing work for the National Weather Service and their state partners. We are in the early stages of conceptualizing a major project on NOAA technologies and how they are telling us more and more about our dynamic relationship with the planet, right down to the local community level.

My efforts and passions haven't gone unnoticed. Just this past year, I was asked to produce the banner video for NOAA's 50th Anniversary (which is actually the day that I'm writing this, Oct. 3). This video included information about the history of NOAA and all six line offices and I got to visit several state-of-the-art government facilities which are collecting information on the planet in real time. Mind-blowing technologies that are keeping us safer.

So, I'm doing more for NOAA from the outside than on the inside. I'm frequently asked by colleagues for advice on their career or freelancing more generally, and I guess the secret to my success is that I have a niche. My passions and interests are far and wide - environmental justice, human rights, science and technology - but my bread and butter work is currently fueled by my work with NOAA (and now EPA) centered mainly around the Great Lakes. Luckily, these interests and connections have dovetailed into an increasing number of projects that are taking me new places outside the region and I'm constantly looking for ways to continue to learn and stretch my boundaries. If I had to give one piece of advice, especially to young storytellers just getting a start, it would be to know your strengths and find a niche. If it is the environment, do stories about the environment and search for organizations who share that interest and mission. I was primed for my work with NOAA by having had a short career there and I continually connect with my former colleagues about what they are up to and the work they are doing. When we aren't in a pandemic, I attend conferences - and even sponsor a few of them - which helps me get my company name out there and helps me establish new connections with organizations who can benefit from my skills. Today, and in relatively short order, Great Lakes Outreach Media has established itself as not just a great production house to get video work done, but as a partner in the broader mission to understand the planet, protect human health and the environment, and showcase how news environmental technologies are improving our relationship with the natural world.

I'll never forget and especially never regret my time at NOAA. It's helped me understand and speak the language of science and prepared me for a career in science communication. I'm able to afford dabbling in passion projects and given me the confidence to go after funding for the kinds of things I want to do. I wasn't always the best student, but I was full of creative passion and that passion was fueled by my love for the natural world. The fact that I get to frequently work closely or directly with America's first official scientific agency in doing the work I love to do tells me I did something right. And there's always a new story (a new discovery) right around the corner. It's an honor and privilege to be living this life and I hope if you're reading this you can takeaway this one single lesson: You absolutely can do whatever it is that excites you for a career. Know what you want to do and why you want to do it, and follow that path. The people who you will meet along the way will be the fuel that drives you, encouraging you as you go and throwing opportunities your way. But, also, don't be afraid to take a leap if something inside you is itching for more. If you have a gut feeling, follow it. It probably won't be easy - especially at the start - but that will be the most rewarding path and you'll thank yourself for having the courage to pursue your dreams.

Launching a Drone
Launching our drone on Lake Erie

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