Careers in Ocean Science: Education Specialist, Hannah MacDonald

Careers in Ocean Science: Education Specialist, Hannah MacDonald


At the age of 20, Hannah MacDonald was the youngest woman in a team of women that dove a historic site in each one of the five great lakes in 24 hours. “This feat was to empower women divers and bring awareness to the uniqueness, vastness and beauty of the Great Lakes,” she says. The adventure was made into a documentary called The Big 5 Dive, directed by Elizabeth Kaiser, and filmed by a female led crew. 

Hannah grew up in Alpena, Michigan, a small coastal community on the shores of Lake Huron, one of the five Great Lakes of North America. It’s there where she first fell in love with water, sailing, swimming and eventually diving. Her work and experiences have taken her from the Channel Islands in California to the gin-clear waters of the Bahamas. Now, she’s an Education Specialist and NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, where she provides ocean and Great Lakes education programs to inspire the next generation of innovators.

Lots of people love the ocean, but not everyone wants to be a scientist and we want to share more about the diversity of available jobs. So, the Wild Dolphin Project sat down with Hannah MacDonald to learn more about her path to become a marine educator and what she loves about her work.

Hannah snorkels the Monohanssett shipwreck in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary of Lake Huron, Michigan.

WDP: First, can you tell me what a national marine sanctuary is? 

HM:  A national marine sanctuary is an underwater park that protects some of the most special marine environments in the United States. National Marine Sanctuaries are important because, just like the National Park Service protects special places on land for future generations, sanctuaries do the same for the marine environment. 

With changing ocean conditions a heavy threat on marine environments and species, national marine sanctuaries work to protect key places, act as stewards in maintaining and restoring healthy environments, which in turn protects marine life. These places are also important because they drive coastal economies through sustainable recreation, tourism and commercial activities. 

WDP: As an education specialist for the sanctuaries, what’s your job?

HM: I provide ocean and Great Lakes education programs, which are mostly virtual, connecting people from anywhere in the world to national marine sanctuaries through technology. My office is in Silver Spring, Maryland, at NOAA’s Headquarters campus.

In a typical day, I will be in and out of meetings with the research/expeditions teams to brainstorm ideas on how to best communicate their work in education programs. It is also likely that I meet with the education teams at each national marine sanctuary to ensure that they have the resources they need to enable the technology / distance learning programs into their work. I often host live interaction education programs through video conferences, connecting students and scientists to each other to discuss national marine sanctuaries. One of my favorite activities on the job is working with the multimedia team, the team that creates our videos, photos and virtual reality media, to discuss how to best use their work within education. 

WDP: Do you use any special technology for virtual learning?

HM: Virtual reality is a tool I use in education programs, where through our Sanctuaries 360° media collection, I am able to take viewers into sanctuaries through immersive photos and videos. Using this tool, paired with educational lessons, connects viewers to national marine sanctuaries by first giving them a sense of place. I also use telepresence technology in education programs. This type of technology is what enables me to bring the research that is happening in our sanctuaries directly to students with a ship-to-shore feed. Programs featured within Sanctuaries LIVE, enable viewers to connect directly with deep-sea exploration and the research team, allowing them to feel a part of the expedition. 

Through these programs, I hope to be increasing societies’ understanding of national marine sanctuaries. This is essential to promoting their participation in marine conservation and protecting these special places. 

Hannah takes a guest on a virtual dive to a shipwreck during the Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary designation ceremony last fall.

WDP: Michigan is not exactly near the ocean, how did you develop a passion for ocean conservation?

HM: Growing up sailing and swimming, my connection to the water was natural. My proximity to Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary enabled me to explore shipwrecks and learn more about marine protected areas. In high school, I participated in a program called Ocean for Life that brought together 30 students from around the world to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to discuss the human connection to the ocean. Connecting with students from across the world, that relied on marine environments in similar ways to me as a student in Michigan, opened my eyes to the ocean’s importance and to how we were also the biggest threat to the ocean. 

WDP: Do you have a favorite national marine sanctuary? 

HM: Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary! It’s where I first connected with water, the sanctuary system and where my passion for marine conservation started. They are all beautiful in their own unique ways but because of my childhood connection being in Thunder Bay, I must choose the freshwater site. 

WDP: Did you also know you wanted to work in education? 

HM: No actually, at first I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist. After my freshman year in college at Michigan State University, I took an internship at Cape Eleuthera Institute to study juvenile sea turtles in the Bahamas. This was my first big step towards becoming the marine biologist I thought I wanted to be. During this internship, I spent every day on the water researching sea turtles, but another part of this position was occasionally bringing out school groups to conduct research with us. To me, the most rewarding days were those where I was surrounded by students curious about the ocean and eager to learn.  I would trade in a day talking to these students for a day working in the field.

There was one moment during this internship that really changed the course of my career. We took a group of local Bahamian students out for a marine debris trawl, and I learned that these students had never been swimming before, never watched a fish jump out of the water and really lacked a sense of connection to the ocean — until they saw human produced trash littering the sea. I knew that I wanted to pursue a career that allowed me to connect people to the ocean. This is when I realized that skills in communication and education would be more important to me than research and scientific techniques. I returned to school that fall and changed my major from environmental zoology to earth science and marine ecosystem management and environmental studies and sustainability. I also picked up a job working as a nature guide at a Montessori school. 

Hannah working at the Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas.

WDP: What do you think is the most difficult aspect of being a marine science educator?

HM: For those who are fortunate enough to experience the marine world, whether that be visiting a beach, scuba diving, or sailing, they often show signs of having an invested interest in wanting to learn more and act in sustainable ways to protect that marine resource. Where it can be difficult to be a marine science educator, is when the audience does not have an established connection to the ocean and they do not see how they are connected to it. This is a challenging aspect of my job but with the right tools and resources can be overcome. When it is, it is very rewarding. 

This is why I truly value the use of virtual reality and telepresence technologies to bring the ocean and Great Lakes to audiences that may not have the chance to experience them in real life. Virtually experiencing the ocean has enabled audiences to feel connected to the special places, providing foundation for the audience to learn from. 

Hannah gives a virtual presentation with a classroom to take kids on a shipwreck dive — The Portland —  in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

WDP: What do you enjoy most about your job?

HM: I love knowing that my job works to establish an understanding of special marine places. I feel that I am contributing to conservation efforts by empowering people to change their behaviors and act as marine stewards. 

Hannah at the DEMA dive show, speaking about the National Marine Sanctuary System.

WDP:  What courses and skills are particularly valuable for someone in your career?

HM: Courses that highlight marine science and the human connection have been foundational in my career. It is important to understand what ties we have to the ocean and how to emphasize those in my work. Skills that are valuable are being confident to speak to a variety of audiences and in various ways. In my position, I work with audiences of all ages and backgrounds, being able to gauge your audience and speak to their level has been one of the most critical skills I continue to learn throughout my career. 

WDP: What would you recommend to someone in high school, interested in the ocean or science, but not exactly sure what they want to do?

HM: At 15, I knew that I loved the water. Fascinated by shipwrecks and the ocean, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue archeology or marine biology, but I knew I needed to test things out if I wanted to find out. At 15, I began volunteering at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary during outreach events. My persistence in volunteering proved to them my work ethic and dedication to my passion and opened the door for me to be hired as a visitor education specialist when I was 18. This volunteer opportunity has opened endless doors for me to pursue my career and change my mind from archeology to biology to education and communication.  By pursuing different experiences and opportunities, along the way you will figure out what you enjoy most and with hard work you will get yourself in that dream position. 

Lastly, I recommend getting involved as soon as you can and making connections because you never know who will meet and how they will impact your life. Mentors in my life have been invaluable at shaping my career. They have guided me, pushed me and helped open doors to reach incredible opportunities — I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.