Inessa Garrey in the large wave flume at the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon State University in 2019 (Courtesy photo)

Inessa Garrey wants to make sure coastal communities will survive imminent natural disasters brought on by climate change.

As the 19-year-old South Salem High School graduate sees it, communities on the coast are on the frontline of climate change and their vulnerability is an issue that needs to be addressed now, not years later when it’ll be too late to change anything.

Garrey, who is about to begin her freshman year at the University of Washington, plans to study civil engineering to find potential solutions to imminent coastal threats of flooding, soil erosion and extreme weather events.

“The main thing I’m really interested in is how we can create infrastructure to protect people who live in coastal communities,” she said. “I feel like in Oregon, we love our coasts - so many people go there all the time. And we have these gorgeous coastal cities like Newport and Lincoln City, and they are going to be affected very seriously.”

Garrey has always had a special place in her heart for the beach and all things nature. She said she has always been interested in the coast’s “power and permanent impermanence.”

“The waves that shape the coast are controlled by the pushes and pulls of the moon, we can only try and direct them to do what we want,” she said. “The beach is always there, it was here before humans and it will continue to exist long after we are gone … however, it also changes and shifts constantly.”

As someone who spent the first 10 years of her life in Colorado, she said she was excited once her family moved to Oregon and was closer to the ocean.

“Even before I worked with coastal engineering and had the opportunity to understand how and why the coast changed, it was something that I noticed and was fascinated by,” she said.

With climate change threatening to future of the coastal areas she grew to love as an Oregonian, thinking about solutions to the problem shouldn’t wait.

“I think we need to think about it now and how we can protect them, or either build some kind of infrastructure to secure the beaches, or how we can build houses on the coastline that aren't going to collapse,” she said. “That’s something that's really, really important to me personally. And I think it's something that's going to be very impactful in our state in the future.”

Given what the South Salem grad has already accomplished, she’s on the right track.

Garrey recently found herself among a very select few winners of a $1,000 scholarship from the National Society of High School Scholars, an international honors and scholarship program.

Out of 800 applicants, Garrey was among 10 to earn that scholarship, a spokesman for the society said. The scholarship supports students who are seeking post-secondary education in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Garrey won the award not only due to her academic achievements but also because of her accomplishments in science and engineering research, which she began doing the summer after her sophomore year at South.

Through a science and engineering internship program, Garrey was paired with Dr. Meagan Wengrove at Oregon State University. There, the teen got a chance to work on a large-scale project at the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory studying how different types of sand dunes respond to extreme weather.

After her first summer at OSU, Garrey said Wengrove invited her back to work on a different project involving a software tool under development by the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration.

Despite restraints caused by the pandemic, the South Salem grad continued to assist at the OSU lab because she was interested and could work on the project online.

Garrey’s work ethic and commitment to the research paid off, as her research advisor invited her to meet and work with collaborators at the University of Delaware.

Kenneth Miller, who taught Garrey for two years of high school physics, said that the teen stood out among her peers at South because of her humbleness and willingness to ask questions.

“She doesn’t act like she knows everything,” Miller said. “Also, she always threw herself into something she was passionate about, and she’d do a lot of learning along the way, and that’s how science is most of the time.”

To sum up the teen’s character, Miller described Garrey as “tenacious.”

As Garrey prepares to start her college career, one of her biggest goals is to get her research published in a respectable scientific journal.

While the University of Washington doesn’t offer a major in coastal engineering, the Seattle-bound teen hopes to do research or pursue a master’s degree in that field.

“I feel like coastal engineering is going to be such a pertinent thing in the next decades as climate change gets worse,” she said. “I just feel like it will be a very important field to help coastal cities survive increasingly powerful storms or rising water levels. So I would like to be helping build the forefront of that.”

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