Blog Post

Career Path: Kris Stepenuck

Want to make a career of citizen science, but not sure how? Let’s learn from the experience of those who have successfully built a career in this dynamic field.

Photo of Kris Stepenuck by Kat Hartwig

Kris Stepenuck is the Extension Program Leader for Lake Champlain Sea Grant and Extension Assistant Professor of Watershed Science, Policy and Education at the University of Vermont. She has spent 20 years pursuing a passion for citizen science, which has included developing, implementing, nurturing and researching volunteer water monitoring programs, and trying to effectively absorb the wealth of knowledge that fellow practitioners and citizen scientists have to share.

We asked Kris to share a bit about how she was able to transform this passion for citizen science into a successful career. See her responses below. 

Advice to young professionals hoping to build a career in citizen science?

Welcome to the field! I have felt that this field is something like a big family over the years. There are people who are incredibly knowledgeable and willing to share that to help new professionals thrive. Take whatever opportunity you can to build relationships with people and to learn from them, especially those who may have specialty knowledge in your area of citizen science. Also, don’t forget that time passes quickly, and it doesn’t take long to become the person who has the knowledge and skills to share with others who are new to the field. Consider passing your knowledge and skills along to another newcomer.  

How did you first get involved with citizen science? 

When I was in high school (back in the late 1980s/early 1990s), my Dad and his colleagues started a local volunteer river monitoring program. It was, in part, because we (my siblings and I) were racing canoes in a sport called canoe poling, in which you stand up in the canoe with a 12’ long pole and maneuver yourself upstream in rapids. Dad wanted to make sure we were safe to fall into the water as sometimes happened. There was a program called RiverWatch that was based in Vermont that was assessing bacteria levels in streams and rivers, so Dad and his colleagues adopted those methods and brought the program to New Hampshire’s Ashuelot River. I became a volunteer for a few sites, and my family substituted for other volunteers when they were on vacation. I also helped my Dad prepare supplies for volunteers to pick up at the lab, and helped with lab work, incubating samples and counting bacteria colonies following 24 hours of incubation. It was a meaningful opportunity that helped shape my career path.

Describe a defining opportunity that helped get you to where you are now.

I was hired into my dream job following earning my master’s degree. That job was to coordinate a volunteer stream monitoring program for the state of Wisconsin, and also to help on a national project to identify and support a network of Extension-connected volunteer water monitoring programs. The position afforded me the opportunity to be mentored by two leaders in the field – Linda Green and Elizabeth Herron from the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program. It also provided me opportunities to lead development of Wisconsin’s program, to engage with colleagues from not only Wisconsin, but from across the nation to identify research needs, and to engage in research to help address some questions related to the field of citizen science.

Those opportunities ultimately led to my decision to enter a PhD program and to focus my research on understanding outcomes and seeking to improve credibility of volunteer environmental monitoring programs. The skills and knowledge I learned, and the education I received, allowed me to be where I am today (an Extension Assistant Professor of Watershed Science, Policy and Education at the University of Vermont).

What percentage of your work is citizen science? How has this changed over the years?

For about 15 years, my work was 100% related to citizen science. For the past 4.5 years, it is it a much smaller percent (<10%). My role in citizen science changed upon taking a faculty position and stepping into more of a supervisory/advisory role for staff managing citizen science programs and graduate students researching citizen science. I also continue to personally engage in research related to citizen science, make presentations, and serve in volunteer roles for various citizen science/volunteer monitoring committees. 

Photo of Kris Stepenuck courtesy of the Lake Champlain Basin Program

You can find out more about Kris’s Watershed, Education, Science and Policy Lab research here or follow her on twitter (@Kstepenu).

This blog post is part of an ongoing series with active CSA members. Have ideas about who we should talk to next? Let us know on twitter @CitSciAssoc.

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