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Everette Newton kneeling in the grass and smiling.
After 28 years in the Air Force, Everette Newton retired back to Beaufort and embarked on a second career as a Duke graduate student and, since November, mayor of the town. (Photo: Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab)

Some students get part-time jobs in the library, some work as tutors, some help out in labs. When Everette Newton took on a second job last year, he became mayor.

In November, Newton, a Ph.D. student at the Duke University Marine Lab (DUML), was elected mayor of Beaufort, North Carolina, where the lab is based.

“I’m a very fortunate person, I really am,” Newton said. “And I’m in an amazing academic environment at the marine lab and I’m in a great community here in Beaufort and very fortunate to be the mayor at this important time in our town’s history.”

Running a town may not be a typical side gig for a graduate student, but Newton is not your typical graduate student.

Everette Newton holding his arms up, pointing towards a drone.
What began as a hobby building homemade drones eventually led Everette Newton to pursue a Ph.D. (Photo: Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab)

He is a Beaufort native, and his father was the DUML marine superintendent throughout Newton’s childhood. After college and 28 years in the Air Force as an electronic warfare engineer, an F-15 fighter pilot, and an Arabic foreign area officer, Newton retired and moved back to the coastal town.

The Air Force nourished Newton’s lifelong interest in technology. Upon retirement, he began developing and testing homemade aerial drones from the simplest of supplies—corrugated plastic (e.g., real-estate signs), foam board, tape, glue, and electronic parts.

That hobby led Newton to meet David Johnston, associate professor of the practice of marine conservation ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Johnston was creating a program with drones that would contribute to marine science, and Newton began volunteering with the program. Newton traveled to places such as Massachusetts, Costa Rica, and Italy and became further interested in marine science.

Eventually, Johnston discussed with Newton the possibility of pursuing a Ph.D. Newton said yes, enticed by the intellectual challenge and the opportunity to expand his horizons and help others see how emerging technology can be used for marine science.

Newton is now in his second year in the Marine Science and Conservation doctoral program at DUML. Specifically, he is interested in how drones can be used for conservation efforts, such as research in water quality, marine debris, and coastal erosion.

Becoming Mayor

In 2017, after his first year in the Ph.D. program, Newton decided to run for mayor. He said that friends, family, and colleagues had been suggesting the idea to him for several years, and that he was inspired by the significant changes occurring in the community and “wanted to get involved to make sure the transformation was successful and also to try and address some of the issues in our community,” such as attracting young families and professionals and growing jobs.

Newton ran unopposed and received strong support from his community. He took the oath of office December 11 and said he felt “very fortunate for the opportunity.” Newton said he was overwhelmed by the support he received from faculty, staff, and students at the marine lab, as well as from the Beaufort community and beyond. People volunteered “to go door to door, write letters, and make phone calls … they didn’t have to do that,” he said, adding that the support has continued through the start of his term.

Newton makes a concerted effort to be out in the community, whether speaking to civil groups or schools.

“I’m out in the community a lot,” he said. “I like to meet and greet with people, I like to ask them what they see in our community.

“There is no substitute for visible leadership.”

Juggling Responsibilities

While balancing the roles of student, scientist, and mayor, Newton doesn’t have a typical daily schedule. On any given day, he could be attending meetings, completing research, or teaching others how to fly drones.

“It just depends on what challenges are awaiting,” he said.

Newton said he is able to handle the responsibilities of being the mayor of Beaufort, which has a population of about 4,000, while completing his Ph.D.

Everette Newton getting sworn in as mayor.
Rett Newton gets sworn in as mayor on December 11. (Photo: Anna Windle)

“I can manage my schedule to maximize whatever focus I need to,” he said, adding that he is actually more efficient with his time now.

Additionally, Newton finds overlap between his studies and his priorities as mayor. Located on the coast, Beaufort is affected by factors such as coastal erosion, marine debris, water quality, and movement of the barrier islands. Newton said Beaufort is no worse than other places on these issues, but he is eager to better understand the effects of these areas scientifically and explore potential political solutions.

“A lot of my focus areas are directly related,” Newton said. “Marine debris is not a trash problem; it’s a people problem.”

Newton is also hoping to bring a younger demographic to Beaufort. He said that there is a great opportunity for economic development in the town and that Beaufort needs to do a better job of generating jobs and attracting young professionals and families to sustain a vibrant community.

As mayor, he intends to explore the potential for infrastructure changes and to create a more bikable and walkable community. Part of Newton’s military training was in planning, which has been instrumental as he lays the groundwork for potential long-term infrastructure changes.

Already, Beaufort and Carteret County have a “tremendous capacity for marine science,” said Newton, adding that the challenge lies in figuring out how to take advantage of that capacity for the benefit of both Beaufort and DUML.

While he’s mapping out the town’s future, Newton is not neglecting his research. He said he is challenged by the need to stay ahead of rapidly developing technology and the desire to keep pace with his peers.

“I am very competitive,” he said. “I hate to lose, and I strive to succeed in every phase of life.

“I look at the other students at Duke… and I see how dedicated and passionate and smart they are, and I want to be an equal. I don’t want to be a lesser scientist than they are.”