Ready for an adventure with a purpose? Request info »
  • Search SEA Semester, Summer and High School Programs
SEA Currents Blog

SEA Currents: News

December 21, 2016

Karen Merritt is winner of Armin E. Elsaesser Fellowship award

Doug Karlson,

SEA Semester

Karen Merritt making street photographs in Havana, Cuba.

Karen Merritt, public health educator, street photographer and SEA Semester alumna (W-98), has been selected to receive this year’s Armin E. Elsaesser Fellowship award.  Karen plans to use the award to investigate and document the “invisible history” of 16th and 17th century mercury and silver mining in Spain and Mexico, which she describes as one of the “longest continuous maritime transport endeavors in history.”

About the Award
Established in 1987 in memory of Armin E. Elsaesser III, master mariner, educator and adventurer, who taught Maritime Studies at SEA Semester and sailed as crew aboard the SSV Westward, the fellowship provides an opportunity for recipients to follow a dream that has been elusive because of the demands of work or study.  Fellowship winners actively investigate a marine or maritime subject of personal interest. Projects must be unrelated to their current professional activities and reflect a creative and independent approach to the pursuit of knowledge.  SEA alumni, faculty, staff, former employees and crew are eligible. Awards range from $3,000 to $7,000.

About the Project
Examining the cultural history and environmental legacy of mercury and silver mining and transportation during Spain’s “Silver Age,” the project represents a convergence of Karen’s interests: health, science, engineering and photography.

Karen will travel to a former mine in Almadén, Spain where an estimated 6,500 metric tons of mercury were extracted and brought to Mexico for use in silver mining between approximately 1550 and 1700.  She will also explore the site of silver mines in Zacatecas, Mexico.  Karen is interested in the long-term environmental and societal consequences of the Spanish silver era and, through photos and text, will research and document conditions in Almadén and Zacatecas through the lens of the mining history of those locations.

About this year’s winner, Karen Merritt
Karen Merritt is a public and sexual health educator and street photographer in Portland, Maine.  Previously, she worked as an environmental engineering consultant with a focus on the characterization and remediation of mercury-contaminated sites.  In addition, she is a volunteer mentor for the University of Maine student chapter of Engineers Without Borders.  She received a PhD in Environmental Engineering with a focus on mercury biogeochemistry, and an MS in Plant, Soil and Environmental Sciences, both from the University of Maine, and earned her BA in Geology from Carleton College.  Karen is an alumna of SEA Semester W-98.

Her work as a street photographer has been featured in numerous solo and group shows around New England, as well as in Portland, Maine, where she lives (her work may also be seen on her website,  She writes: “I am self-taught and have discovered that I have a passion for street shooting with old cameras because they are conversation starters, and conversation leads to relaxation which leads to interesting environmental portraiture. Street shooting is in many ways as simple as take a walk, strike up a conversation, take some pictures, keep talking, keep strolling, keep your eyes open or whatever unfolds around you. It is the art of being present.”

Karen likens her interest in photography to her appreciation for learning to navigate with a sextant while at SEA Semester. “… I love the intricate and the complicated and the analog…. I love the slow pace of lived experience.”

Karen will conduct her research in 2017 and early 2018.  Her goal is to prepare a gallery show of photographs, papers, as well as academic presentations.

For more information about the Armin E. Elsaesser Fellowship and to apply, go to

Categories: News, • Topics: featured  elsaesser  research • (0) Comments
Previous entry: We are all here    Next entry: S-271: The Global Ocean




Add a comment:

Notify me of follow-­up comments?

I would like SEA to keep me informed about news and opportunities.