Better Collaboration, Stronger Projects at VASG Symposium

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Better Collaboration, Stronger Projects at VASG Symposium

Speakers at the VASG Project Participants' Symposium discussed challenges of building successful collaborations when crossing institutional boundaries.

Skip Stiles speaking at the sixth annual Virginia Sea Grant Project Participants' Symposium. ©Jen Armstrong/VASG

Skip Stiles speaking at the sixth annual Project Participants’ Symposium. ©Jen Armstrong/VASG

By Julia Robins, Staff Writer

“If it weren’t for Sea Grant,” said Skip Stiles of Wetlands Watch, “We’d still be…trying to figure out where to go next.” Speaking on January 29 at the sixth annual Project Participants’ Symposium organized by Virginia Sea Grant (VASG), Stiles was one of four presenters who discussed the challenges of building successful collaborations and shared advice from their experiences.

At last year’s symposium, Stiles led a breakout session that laid the foundation for a resiliency design project. At the time, he already had the project in mind: figuring out how to adapt for sea level rise in Chesterfield Heights, a coastal community in Norfolk, before a storm came in and caused real damage. After the breakout session, Stiles said, “The work in Chesterfield Heights was really framed by the conversations we had here last year.” Now, 20 Hampton University architecture students and 20 Old Dominion University engineering students are working together to develop a resiliency design that works for the community.

Stiles’s resiliency project was one of several examples of the importance of collaboration across universities, state agencies, and other organizations that work in coastal and marine Virginia.

“The symposium is one of Virginia Sea Grant’s foremost opportunities for integration and reflection,” says Dr. Troy Hartley, VASG director. “This integration and reflection is where innovation comes from, producing novel solutions to challenging coastal and marine resource issues.”

Other speakers shared advice about collaborating with new partners and discussed the potential challenges of working across multiple disciplines. Some of the takeaways included the need to develop a deep understanding of other disciplines to ensure you’re on the same page with others, and involve end-users in the planning stages before a project begins.

Making connections early is key, agreed Keith Skiles of the Virginia Department of Health. At last year’s symposium, the Department of Health collaborated with industry, researchers, and others to kick off conversations about harmful algal blooms, the sudden increases in algae that happen in the summer in the Chesapeake Bay. While some blooms produce toxins, many different algae may be involved. Getting specific, timely information to waterman and shellfish farmers has been a challenge.

Connecting with industry members and researchers who had direct experience with the issue “helped to create a more uniform understanding of the problem and what to expect from it,” said Skiles. Skiles added that, although it’s difficult to find time to build and maintain relationships, “it helps to reach out to groups like Virginia Sea Grant to find resources that we didn’t know existed.”