Sandra Dorning loved to spend time on the Oregon coast as a child, whale watching and exploring the tide pools. When she was 11 years old, she saw something that affected her deeply.
“We saw a pod of killer whales swimming down the coastline,” she said. “It was beautiful — I had never seen anything like it. I was obsessed with killer whales for that year. I just decided I wanted to spend my life learning about marine animals.”
Dorning’s journey with the ocean will continue next fall when she crosses it to attend graduate school in the United Kingdom. She is a winner of the highly selective Marshall Scholarship.
Each year, the Marshall Scholarship offers up to 40 young Americans the opportunity to pursue graduate degrees for free at any university in the U.K. In the 2016 competition, only 3.5 percent of applicants were selected, and 25 percent of them were Ivy League graduates. Before Dorning, the UO’s last winner was in 2011.
Dorning graduated from the UO in spring 2017 with a degree in marine biology. After graduating, she worked first as a summer intern and now as a research technician in the biology lab of UO professor Kelly Sutherland. She is interested in international marine policy related to fisheries management.
“In the past 50 years — and more, really — but in the past 50 years, we’ve seen a huge decline in fish stocks and in fisheries,” she said. “I’d like my work over the next, I guess, 50 years or so to hopefully contribute to some reversal of that trend so we can have policies and agreements established that can allow fishery sustainability as that becomes an ever-important resource for many countries around the world.”
Throughout her years as an undergraduate, Dorning had a variety of research experiences. During her senior year, she was editor-in-chief for the Oregon Undergraduate Research Journal. Her thesis for the Clark Honors College involved researching methods to mitigate the spread of an invasive species of sea squirt in Oregon’s Coos Estuary.
As a winner of another distinguished scholarship, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ernest Hollings Scholarship, she studied the acoustic behavior of Omura’s whales off the coast of Madagascar.
“I’m just really grateful for all the undergraduate research opportunities I was able to capitalize on at the university,” she said. “That’s why I’ve been able to be competitive in the scholarship.”
Ultimately, Dorning’s undergraduate experiences lead her to discover her true passion in international marine policy.
“As I have gone through the research process, I started to get the sense that I really felt passionately about the applications of the research I was doing,” she said. “Then I took an international environmental politics course taught by professor Ronald Mitchell here at the UO, and that sort of solidified my interest in how we can use science to shape policy decisions that are really important.”
If she gets her first choice, Dorning will spend a year studying at the University of Saint Andrews in Fife, Scotland, and a year at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. She believes that studying abroad in the U.K., particularly, will complement her career in international marine policy.
“The U.S. and the U.K., we share this huge body of water: the Atlantic Ocean separating our two countries. That’s sort of been the battleground for a lot of fishery disputes and conflicts over the years,” Dorning explained. “So from what I know about our fisheries policy and management here in the U.S., I think learning about how the U.K. approaches it can help me sort of serve as a liaison between those countries in the future in terms of coming to the best agreements we can on how to share this resource.”
For their help through the application process, Dorning is grateful to her thesis advisor, Craig Young; her political science professor, Ronald Mitchell; her advisor for the Oregon Undergraduate Research Journal, Barbara Jenkins; her current research advisor, professor Kelly Sutherland; and the director of the Office of Distinguished Scholarships, Josh Snodgrass.
She offered up advice for any UO students considering applying for distinguished scholarships.
“Even if you’re not sure whether you’ll be competitive, I think it’s important to just apply,” she said. “When I applied for this, I wasn’t holding my breath because I knew it was a competitive scholarship, but you never know what the scholarship committees are looking for and how your unique set of experiences may help you get that award.
“I would encourage you to just get involved with what you’re interested in, and even if your interests change while you’re at university, all of those experiences will help you get where you want to go.”
—By Sarah Eddy, University Communications