Gulf-wide Sea Grant team receives national award for oil spill science outreach efforts

(OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss.) – The Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Team received the National Superior Outreach Programming Award (SOPA), Sea Grant’s highest extension honor, at a Sept. 20 ceremony in Portland, Oregon. The team of outreach professionals is based in programs located around the Gulf of Mexico and works to synthesize and share peer-reviewed findings about oil spill impacts for audiences who rely on healthy marine ecosystems for work or play.

“The team shares science through the development and dissemination of publications, science seminars and web-based resources, some of which have been translated into other languages,” said Sea Grant Extension Network Chair Dave Hansen as he announced the winning program. “In addition to educating thousands of stakeholders across the Gulf, emergency response communities across the nation incorporated this team’s products into their trainings.”

team award SG week
The Sea Grant Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Science Outreach Team receives the National Superior Outreach Programming Award in Portland. Pictured are Chris Hale, left, Tara Skelton, Monica Wilson and Steve Sempier. (Photo by James Dewhirst)

Given once every two years by the Sea Grant Extension Assembly, the SOPA award recognizes outstanding success in outreach programming. Regional directors from six geographical areas nominate outreach projects for the award.

Winning nominees demonstrate exceptional leadership and teamwork that result in significant impacts and public benefit within the Sea Grant extension mission.

Oil Spill Science Outreach Specialists Larissa Graham, Chris Hale, Emily Maung-Douglass and Monica Wilson, Communicator Tara Skelton and Oil Spill Science Outreach Manager Steve Sempier each received an award. LaDon Swann, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, oversees the program.

“In less than four years, the team has provided tremendous value to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and many Sea Grant programs within our network,” Swann said. “The team has raised the awareness of Sea Grant Extension within NOAA’s Office of Response and Recovery, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the petroleum industry and non-Sea Grant academic institutions nationally and internationally. They have applied sound extension methods including needs assessments, program design, appropriate delivery methods and program evaluation. Most importantly, they have built trust among stakeholder groups, who during the oil spill, lost a good bit of trust in the science community.”

After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, Gulf of Mexico area residents asked questions about the short-, mid- and long-term effects of the spill. Due to the scale of the event, both public and private funders spent more than $1.3 billion to support research that could answer those questions. In 2014, one such group, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI), provided funding for the four Gulf Sea Grant programs (Florida, Mississippi-Alabama, Louisiana and Texas) to create a program to share GoMRI-funded and other oil spill science with specific target audiences in the area.

Since the creation of the team in 2014, members have taken a multi-pronged approach to outreach. Their first act was to meet with target audience members including fishermen, tourism leaders, spill responders, resource managers, public health officials, community leaders, elected officials, non-governmental organizations, educators, extension agents and many others to find out specific areas of interest. They received input from more than 1,100 stakeholders.

The team then got to work finding answers to those questions in published journal articles. They synthesized the results they found in research into about 30 outreach publications, both fact sheets and longer, more in-depth bulletins. They also hosted free science seminars on specific oil spill-related subjects. They have organized 24 science seminars with over 100 invited speakers and close to 2,000 attendees. The program founded with a regional focus is now national in scope, with upcoming meetings planned in Virginia, California and Alaska.

In closing his remarks during the SOPA ceremony, Hansen said one award reviewer described the oil spill science program as “a creative, truly functioning, transdisciplinary team . . . that epitomizes the value of Sea Grant extension’s unwavering commitment to being honest brokers interpreting science for stakeholders.”

To read the team’s publications, view videos from their seminars and workshops and learn more about the newest oil spill outreach specialist, Missy Partyka, visit


The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, created in 1972, is a university-based program dedicated to enhancing the sustainable use and conservation of ocean and coastal resources through research, outreach and education programs. Consortium members include Auburn University, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Jackson State University, Mississippi State University, The University of Alabama, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, The University of Mississippi, The University of Southern Mississippi and the University of South Alabama. Its administrative office is located at The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Lab.