By Su Byron
Maya Burke ’01 grew up in St. Joseph Sound in North Pinellas County—a place of mangroves, mud flats and sea grasses. She loved exploring these estuarine systems as a child. That love never died.
Preserving nature and addressing climate change have since become part of Burke’s life’s work—so much so that she has been instrumental in monitoring environmental disasters like the recent wastewater discharge from Piney Point into local bays, preserves and estuaries. Burke and her colleagues (as well as several New College alumni) are engaging in critical research and collecting data to perform detailed analyses of the effects of the leak.
“Climate change is the big elephant in the room,” Burke said. “Sea level rise is a fact—and it’s a definite threat to the ecological systems of Tampa Bay. But there are so many other ongoing anthropogenic threats to water quality. The Piney Point disaster is just one example. We don’t have the luxury of fixating on one problem. We have to look at every problem—and keep coming up with creative solutions, all the time.”
Brainstorming creative solutions is part of what Burke does in her role at TBEP—an organization that manages habitat restoration and water quality improvement projects. She also facilitates the Technical Advisory Committee, the Tampa Bay Nitrogen Management Consortium and the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel, and she distills Tampa Bay research for decision makers and resource managers.
Burke is a nature lover and an ecological expert. But, at the beginning of her New College studies, she knew that passion and knowledge wouldn’t be enough. To make a difference, she would need to communicate her ecological knowledge in the political sphere. Environmental studies would teach her the intricacies of natural systems. Political science would teach her the logic of politics.
“I’ve always been all about the application of knowledge,” Burke said. “While I love the natural environment, I wanted more than an abstract understanding. I wanted the knowledge to influence policy and decision makers as well.”
Burke credits New College Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies David Brain, Ph.D. (and his course on sustainability) for leading her in this practical direction. In the course, Brain explored historian William Cronon’s unsentimental essay, The Trouble with Wilderness, which challenged the duality between the natural and human worlds. Cronon held that the line between the two is imaginary (that it’s one system, and humanity’s relationship to nature should reflect that).
New College Associate Professor of Philosophy April Flakne, Ph.D. and her environmental ethics class also challenged Burke to go beyond the realm of philosophizing and into the world of action and application.
These lessons still inform Burke’s work. She is fluent in the languages of both scientists and politicians, and she functions as a translator between the two. Environmental researchers at TBEP bring back a constant stream of data from Tampa Bay—a fluctuating assessment of water quality, sea level height, nutrient loads, algal blooms, and a host of other variables. To politicians, it can seem like information overload. And the specialized descriptions of the natural world can seem like incomprehensible jargon.
Burke describes TBEP as an intergovernmental partnership. As the assistant director, she puts arcane scientific terminology into lucid terms for political decision makers.
“I distill the findings of the area research community,” Burke said. “I break these down to policy options, which I communicate to elected officials at the city, county and congressional levels. I make the information actionable (that’s key). I start by providing an ecological snapshot of Tampa Bay to inform their decisions. I start with where we are now. I end with what we can do about it.”
This never-ending diagnosis of Tampa Bay depends on rigorous fieldwork and legal action by dedicated area professionals. According to Burke, many of these are also New College alumni: Justin Bloom, an environmental attorney with Suncoast Waterkeeper; Kate Hubbard, a research scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; and Race Stryker, a researcher for the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program. All three were involved in the environmental monitoring of Piney Point.
Burke and her fellow alumni plan to stay vigilant. Humanity and nature share the same planet after all.
Su Byron is the communications specialist for the New College Foundation.