Packed to the Gills and Migrating to D.C.
Bidding a fond adieu to the University of Notre Dame, I departed South Bend in January 2018 for the environs of the nation's capital to complete my National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship.
At the time, I don't think I appreciated just how life-changing this experience would be.
Diving into Sea Grant
Not long after I was assigned my computer and desk in the National Sea Grant Office at NOAA HQ - my home for the year - I was quickly engaged in all aspects of Sea Grant. I was not simply the "fellow", but a full-fledged member of the team.
As the Science Communications Specialist, my primary responsibility was to develop and coordinate communications for a variety of national-level audiences, a role which spanned anything from writing lay summaries of Sea Grant-funded research for the program’s website to developing talking points and materials for congressional briefings.
In this position, I gained a thorough understanding of the varied types of work supported by Sea Grant around the country. I helped develop Sea Grant's partnerships - including across both academic and private-sector sectors - and, in doing so, also expanded my own personal network. I was constantly exposed to policy and decision-making at the federal agency level, providing me with a much better understanding of the challenges in communicating science in a ways that are relevant and useful for policymakers.
(Caption: Attending the March 2018 Sea Grant Association meeting in Washington, D.C.)
Telling the Sea Grant Story
For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of doing science communication is the ability (and need) to be creative. Within the first couple of months in the office, I had developed new ways to communicate the program's work and tell the Sea Grant "story". While I came into the fellowship with some self-taught experience using social media for science communication, I gained a knowledge, techniques, and tools needed to become a more strategic and effective communicator of science to a variety of audiences including the non-expert public and policymakers.
I created Sea Grant Postcards from the Field as a way of briefly communicating some of the projects and programs happening throughout the network. These postcards are sent out to the Sea Grant newsletter mailing list as quick, visual updates about ongoing work.
I also created #MySGStory, where members of the Sea Grant network could "take over" the national social media channels for a couple of days to tell their story - basically asking the questions, what was the path that led them to Sea Grant and what kind of work do they do?
But I didn't just create new types of content; I also expanded the channels through which Sea Grant communicates. I helped launch the national Sea Grant Instagram account, as well as expanded an existing, but under-used Pinterest page. The Sea Grant Instagram, started during the second month of my fellowship, now has over 1000 followers, while the Pinterest page promotes Sea Grant's focus of sustainable seafood and aquaculture by showcasing a mixture of recipes and science.
Beyond creating new content and avenues for communicating, I also developed highly successful social media campaigns for standing events like #NationalOysterDay and #NationalSeafoodMonth. One of the most important lessons I learned from running these campaigns was the need to develop a strategic plan prior to launching, one that addresses key messages, target audiences, and types of content.
(Photo: The Hawai'i Sea Grant Postcard from the Field)
Sea Grant Visioning Efforts
In addition to my day-to-day responsibilities of helping run the Sea Grant comms shop, I also was involved with Sea Grant national visioning efforts. I was involved in a group developing a vision for how Sea Grant could better incorporate traditional and local ecological knowledge into its mission, as well as with a group working on making Sea Grant's communications about aquaculture more effective.
A highlight of my year was attending the Traditional and Local Ecological planning meeting held in southern Louisiana. We met with members of the Pointe-aux-Chiens and Isle de Jean Charles tribes and took a boat ride to see the disappearing Louisiana coast. Our hosts - men and women who had lived in this area their entire lives and experienced the changes firsthand - conveyed to us the importance of incorporating not only traditional forms of knowledge about the environment into Sea Grant's work, but also incorporating the holders of that knowledge into all stages of project development.
(Caption: Spanish moss blanketing a tree and an elevated house in the Pointe-aux-Chiens community)
Taking on a Leadership Role
Throughout the year, there were many opportunities for me to step into a leadership role: in my office, as part of my Knauss cohort, and across the national Sea Grant network.
I helped coordinate over 50 communicators in the Sea Grant network and provided updates from the national office to make them aware of our planned communications campaigns. Towards the end of my fellowship, I worked with my mentor, Brooke Carney, to draft a strategic plan for national-level Sea Grant communications that will be used in the future to improve how the national office communicates the work of the state programs.
That leadership role came to a head at Sea Grant Week, when I unexpectedly had to step in for Brooke and lead the Communicators Meeting. I also stepped into Brooke's (very large) shoes to help lead some of the breakout sessions she had developed.
(Photo: Sea Grant Communicators meeting at Sea Grant Week in Portland, OR)
Trainings and Classes
The sheer wealth of trainings and classes I was offered during my Knauss year was at times almost overwhelming. Just a few examples of classes I was able to take: A COMPASS science communication training taught me different ways of talking about research; a Federal Budget Process 101 class shed light on the very complex world of government money; and the annual Knauss Career Day exposed me to different career paths from past fellows who had once been in my shoes.
One of the most helpful classes was a course on facilitation skills where I learned how to effectively organize and facilitate groups of individuals. This class not only helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses as a leader, but also provided me with skills that I plan to take back with me to academia to hold more efficient meetings.
(Photo: Training materials developed by the NOAA Office for Coastal Management for use in understanding meeting participant attitudes.)
I continued to stay involved with the research community by attending two major conferences in my field of study: the annual meetings of the Society for Freshwater Science (SFS) and the American Fisheries Society (AFS).
At the SFS meeting in Detroit, MI, I presented on my dissertation research (an Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant-funded project examining linkages between coastal wetland and nearshore lake food webs in Lake Michigan) in addition to attending discussions as a member of the society's Publicity and Information Committee.
I shared some of the lessons I learned about doing science communication at a federal agency as part of a symposium I co-organized at the AFS meeting in Atlantic City, NJ. The theme of the symposium was communicating science to diverse audiences, something I had extensive experience doing during my Knauss year. At the same meeting, I also co-organized a pre-meeting workshop for attendees to practice their science communications skills. Additionally at the AFS meeting, I represented Sea Grant with an exhibitor booth and coordinated Sea Grant presence at the meeting, i.e., emailing attendees list of all affiliated talks and organizing a Sea Grant meet-up.
(Caption: 2018 Knauss fellows at the American Fisheries Society annual meeting in Atlantic City, N.J.)
Making Connections ...
Through my travels, as well as by frequently attending events in D.C., I've greatly expanded my network in across both different levels of government and different sectors (e.g., non-profits, private industry). The art of networking is not one I had learned in graduate school, but it is a way of life in D.C. And all that practice made perfect (or, at least, better): I learned how to not only survive, but even enjoy networking events. I received more business cards than I initially knew what to do with. My confidence in starting and maintaining conversations has greatly increased.
(Photo: 2018 Knauss fellows meet with Dr, Jane Lubchenco in D.C.)
... and New Friends
But building a network was not just about future career opportunities. In meeting scientists and policymakers around the world, I developed support networks that will help me as I finish my Ph.D. and begin my career.
My year was filled with exploring the sights of our nation's capital with my Knauss cohort. From thesis writing together on a Saturday morning at the Library of Congress, to cheering each other on at the Marine Corps Marathon, I always knew I had friends to call up who would support me. We commiserated over government acronyms, swapped stories of our adventures, and celebrated each other's successes.
But friend-making wasn't limited to my cohort, or even within D.C.! Meeting people of all different backgrounds helped me cultivate a support system around the country and the world. As just one example - I had interacted with the Clyde River Foundation on Twitter, and when I visited Scotland for a statistics workshop during my Knauss year, I was invited to do fieldwork with the group. I was warmly welcomed as a team member, despite not knowing any of them outside of the Twitter-sphere.
(Photo: My new Clyde River Foundation friends and I after a long, but awesome day of fish sampling in the headwaters of the Clyde River)
Meeting the Sea Grant Network
One of my goals as a member of the national Sea Grant office was to get out of the office and meet face-to-face with the people who make up the Sea Grant network across the country.
Sometimes that just involved a quick trip down to the Hill for a Sea Grant Association congressional briefing or downtown to the Department of Commerce building for the annual NOAA Fish Fry; other times, it involved visiting Sea Grant programs in the field.
(Photo: The Sea Grant booth at the annual NOAA Fish Fry in Washington, D.C.)
Sea Grant Program Visits
In August, I attended a lake sturgeon reintroduction hosted by Michigan Sea Grant and partners. The event was part of the Saginaw Bay Watershed Lake Sturgeon Reintroduction Program which seeks to bring the ancient species of fish back to Lake Huron tributaries.
With almost a carnival-like atmosphere, almost 200 people of all ages gathered in the tiny town of Frankenmuth, MI on a sunny late-summer day. I took photographs of the event and got to meet with many members of the Michigan Sea Grant team. This event really highlighted for me the importance of partnerships - it was the culmination of many years of collaboration among a wide range of state, NGO, and federal partners.
(Photo: Juvenile lake sturgeon before being released into the Cass River)
Sea Grant Program Visits
Also in August, I visited Ohio Sea Grant's Stone Laboratory on Lake Erie for their annual Science Writers Conference. I got to interact with journalists and reporters from around the Great Lakes region and learned what journalists are looking for when it comes to research communications. As part of the conference, we were able to take a research cruise with Sea Grant staff during which we did a fish trawl and collected water samples.
(Caption: Newton, unofficial mascot of Ohio Sea Grant's Stone Laboratory and one of the many #DogsOfSeaGrant I got to meet during the year)
Sea Grant Program Visits
In September, I traveled to Washington Sea Grant and had the opportunity to help the communications team do public outreach at the Bellingham SeaFeast festival. It was really impactful seeing how a state Sea Grant program was so integrated with the communities it serves.
During my trip, I also had the opportunity to serve as a judge for Hack for the Sea, a Washington Sea Grant-sponsored "hack-a-thon." The teams were tasked with developing solutions to marine challenges (e.g., creating an app to identify and log marine debris on beaches).
Before hopping on a red-eye flight back to D.C., I spent my last day in Seattle meeting with Sea Grant staff, including paddleboarding with the Sea Grant Ocean Acidification Liaison Meg Chadsey. Learning about the challenges that ocean acidification poses to coastal communities while taking in the Seattle skyline from atop a paddleboard on Lake Union ranks pretty high up there in pretty awesome experiences.
(Caption: Bellingham SeaFeast attendees watch a mock Coast Guard Rescue-At-Sea exercise sponsored by Washington Sea Grant)
Seeing New Places
Ghostly skeletons of oak trees lining the bayou in southern Louisiana. Rolling green hills of Scotland against a robin egg blue sky. A building-sized rock jutting up from a windswept coast.
Traveling during my fellowship year not only exposed me to new people and ideas, but also allowed me to see and be inspired by some really amazing places. Seeing these wild, natural places reminded me why we work so diligently to protect our planet.
(Photo: Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, OR)
Bringing NOAA to the People
One of the most interesting opportunities I had during my Knauss year was traveling with NOAA Assistant Administrator retired Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet to a public NOAA Listening Session in Charleston, SC. I was selected to serve as a notetaker for the event which allowed the public to express their concerns and comments about the Department of Commerce's 2018-2021 Strategic Plan.
To say the 24 hours I spent with the Admiral's team were intense would be an understatement. We toured the Office for Coastal Management and Hollings Marine Laboratory and met with staff to learn about their work. We then took a boat ride of the Charleston harbor with the Pilots Association, a group of industry captains.
The day culminated with the public listening session and panel discussion moderated by South Carolina Sea Grant director Rick DeVoe. The session was packed and emotions ran high. The poise and composure demonstrated by the Admiral, Rick, and the members of the panel impressed upon me some of the challenges of being a leader in contentious situations.
(Caption: RDML Timothy Gallaudet is shown an experimental flume during a tour of the Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, S.C.)
New Ways of Doing #SciComm
During my Knauss year, I was able to explore my interest in science communication (known on social media as #scicomm) both in regards to Sea Grant work as well as more generally as well.
One way of exploring new ways of communicating science was helping pilot a new science outreach series called Skype a Scientist Live. Skype a Scientist is a program that matches scientists with K-12 classrooms around the world for Q-&-A sessions where students get to learn more about topics and see the "real" side of science. One of the co-founders of Skype a Scientist reached out to ask if I would help them launch a new outreach tool - Skype a Scientist Live - which would be open to anyone, not just a single classroom like the main program.
I also hosted the third year of my #25DaysofFishmas Twitter campaign and gave a presentation about #fishmas through the NOAA Central Library's seminar series. I believe the skills I gained as Science Communications Specialist elevated the quality of this year's #25DaysofFishmas campaign.
(Caption: Preparing for Skype a Scientist Live outreach event)
Leaving D.C. (for now)
While I knew coming into the fellowship that I would need to return to Notre Dame to finish my Ph.D., I didn't account for how difficult it would be to leave the fast-paced world of D.C. and the friends I had made.
But I'm not returning empty-handed: I take back with me a much-expanded skill set, including both “hard” skills (e.g., graphic design, writing for different audiences, use of digital media) and “soft” skills (e.g., facilitation, management, networking, strategic planning). I'm also taking back with me the network I've created and will continue to maintain.
None of this would have been possible without the support of so many people, including my sponsoring Sea Grant program, Illinois-Indiana, my doctoral advisor at Notre Dame, Gary Lamberti, and my fellowship mentor Brooke Carney.