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New Alaska Sealife Center hires bring social sciences to conservation work

Seward has struggled acutely with the pressure of short-term rentals on affordable housing options.
Sabine Poux
An elevated view of Seward. The Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward hired two new social scientists to improve conservation practices.

The Alaska Sealife Center welcomed John Fraser as the director of mission impact and Wei-Ying Wong as their chief science and education officer. The new hires are a part of the Sealife Center’s efforts to bring social science practices into their organization.

Fraser is the founder and former president of Knology, a New York City based think tank that works to support cultural institutions like zoos, museums and libraries. He brings years of research experience in how these institutions can better serve local communities. He recently drove to Seward from New York with his family for the new job.

“I'm just so excited about this opportunity to work in such a wonderful little town where you know everybody from the grocery store,” he said, “and yet, being able to have this megaphone for the issues that we're addressing here that can reach such a huge global population. I mean, that's just rare for social scientists to have this opportunity.”

Now, he is working with the Sealife Center to bring the social sciences into the conservation work they do. Wong said that with Fraser’s work, they are working to build education programs that can create change in conservation practices for local communities.

“We do this amazing science. We struggle to communicate it. And we struggle to communicate it for the outcomes that we want,” she said, “so how then do we bring this space in? And that's kind of what we're really trying to do with Johnny's position.”

One of the major shifts Fraser and Wong are working towards is moving from a traditional institution that presents conservation research to the public to a place that provides services to the local communities as it relates to conservation.

Fraser said that the Sealife Center experiences for locals will differ from the many one-time tourists that visit the aquarium, and that they change their approach to serving the groups to best suit their needs.

”We see this as working collaboratively to develop a shared story for what we believe here in this community. It partly gets away from, ‘We do science and tell you what it is,’” he said, “and it builds us toward, ‘what are the needs and issues being faced in these communities? How do our resources help us do better?’”

Part of this effective communication comes from creating connections within the community and to make the information locally and culturally relevant. Fraser and Wong plan to accomplish this by expanding their team of social scientists and creating partnerships with other organizations in the Kenai Peninsula.

Fraser also hopes to work on training social scientists within the state to maintain a local perspective.

“There aren't that many folks doing the kind of work we do here in Alaska, and so we would like to take some of our time to build those skills for this community,” he said, “because when you're born and raised here, you approach these questions with a different perspective.”

Moving forward, Wong said there will be subtle changes to the center itself, such as increasing research transparency and working with the Chugachmiut Heritage Preservation division to include stories about Chugach peoples in the region in the exhibits.