Alyson Myers at her DOE-funded research project site. (Credit: Judy Rolfe)


By Parker Brown, Communications Specialist

DURHAM, N.C.— Alyson Myers, DEL-MEM ’15, and her organization, The Fearless Fund, are working to find global solutions to the challenges of our marine and estuarine systems. Her latest venture is a $500,000 project with the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s (DOE ARPA-E) Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER) program.

The Fearless team, led by Myers, will develop a new system to enable large-scale seaweed “ranching” using remote sensing and imaging technologies to monitor free-floating, low-impact Sargassum cultivation designed to mimic naturally occurring seaweed mats found in nature.

By leveraging the wealth of data generated from a suite of sensors, the team seeks to achieve largescale farming without the need for capital-intensive infrastructure.

Duke Environment corresponded with Myers to talk about how she developed a passion for promoting sustainable ocean resource management, as well as how her time in the Duke Environmental Leadership Master of Environmental Management (DEL-MEM) program has shaped her work.

1. How did you first become interested in aquaculture and promoting healthy waterways?

The Atlantic Ocean is both beautiful and awe-inspiring, but news of pollution and dead zones couldn’t be ignored. After living many years in a city, I started spending time on a coastal farm with clean oceanic creeks. Naturally, I started playing in those systems—first planting oysters to see if I could grow them.  

The shallow bays around the farm were overwhelmed with seaweed, so I started to research why it was there. I learned that runoff from the tomato fields upland was probably the culprit. I also learned that algae can be converted to products. That was, in a sense, the first day of the current project.

2. What brought you to the DEL-MEM program as a mid-career professional, and how have you grown as a leader and environmental professional since you first came to Duke?  

The faculty, I thought, could be a good testing ground—and potential allies—in my research on how to produce more biomass, sustainably, in oceans rather than on land. The professors were phenomenal. I learned about each of their disciplines, which were essentially tools for how to accomplish the work.

Leadership was a whole new area for me. I was interested in ideas, new ways of assisting systems and the economy. What I found was that to implement ideas, you need people to understand those ideas and to join the team. The discipline and teachings were fascinating. Learning about humility as a leader was very interesting.

3. How did your coursework and experiences in the DEL-MEM program lay the foundation for your current project with the Department of Energy?

I took every course on water that I could, from International Law of the Sea to Coastal Ecosystems. It was great to enter academia to understand how others were thinking about these challenges. My colleagues in the program had diverse experiences and drive to make an impact.  

Deb Gallagher taught us about both business and policy. We must engage and harness the private sector to accomplish environmental goals. It is in business’ and our interest. The MARINER project is the perfect forum to propose big ideas and how to accomplish them in oceans.

4. What is your role within the mission of the Fearless Fund, and what are you hoping to achieve with the organization's latest project?  

The truth is, as the head of an organization, we have to be fearless to get new ideas out into the world. The environment is our common asset, and we forget that we all enjoy its benefits. We need new models of how to partner with our systems. I call it “restorative commerce” to emphasize that business can play a vital role. My goal is to produce a profitable, scalable enterprise that provides benefits to our oceans and efficiencies to our economy.

5. In a broader context, how might the work that you and your team are doing in the Gulf of Mexico set a precedent for future projects, and what might the long-term implications be?  

Success stories are much more fun than problems. We aim to be the former while coincidentally solving the latter. Even better, we tackle several problems at once. If we can meet the high bar set by MARINER, we will have done something unimaginable for the current seaweed industry. We hope to assist our oceans, and we want to show the Impact Investment community that we can move capital responsibly, sustainably to assist the ecosystems by which we all live.

Finally, we engage students in how to solve problems, as DOE or Duke set them before us. The fun is in finding the answers.