May 25, 2011

Washington Sea Grant helps UW grads get high-level marine or aquatic policy experience

When three UW graduates headed to Washington, D.C., as National Sea Grant Knauss Fellows, they represented nearly 10 percent of the 2011-2012 fellows chosen for the prestigious program, which places students in federal agencies for a high-level policy experience. In fact, since its inception in 1979, more than 800 graduates nationwide have been Knauss Fellows, and Washington Sea Grant holds the distinction of sponsoring more of those fellows than any of the 32 college-based Sea Grant programs in the nation.

This year Bethany Craig, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences; and Ethan Lucas and Chelsea Combest-Friedman, School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, are the Fellows sponsored by Washington Sea Grant.

The Knauss Fellowship begins with an application process through local offices. Washington Sea Grants Education Specialist Nancy Reichley coordinates the Knauss application process and speaks to why she thinks Washington Sea Grant is particularly successful in sponsoring fellows.

“The high quality of graduate students attending Washington’s universities and colleges is a significant factor, as is involvement of the UW faculty, because our students are already well-qualified even before they begin the application process,” she said. “Also, because we advertise the Knauss Fellowship across the state, we are receiving more highly qualified applications from other Washington graduate schools.  We mentor promising students from any school, from when the application period opens to the moment the application is mailed to the National Sea Grant Office. “

Because the Knauss Fellowship offers a policy experience, it is sometimes believed to be available only to students pursuing careers in public policy.  The programs goals are much broader, however. Eligibility is simply graduate-level enrollment in a marine or aquatic-related field.  After fellows have been selected at the national level, they attend a placement week in Washington D.C. during November, interviewing with 10-20 legislative or executive branch agencies over four days.  Fellows and agencies rank each other, and final selections are made by pairing rankings.

“Placement week was a learning experience itself as I found myself gravitating toward positions with the broadest perspective and experience,” said Craig, who completed her masters in December.

Bethany Craig doing electro-fishing--a sampling technique used for stream fishes.

Bethany Craig doing electro-fishing--a sampling technique used for stream fishes.

Like many fellows, Craigs background is diverse, with a degree in biology from Colby College in Maine to freshwater fish research in California and Alaska.  These experiences ultimately brought her to the UW, where she focused her research on use of estuaries by juvenile salmon.  During her year in D.C., Craig will be assisting the Chief Science Adviser for NOAA Fisheries.  Besides being incredibly excited about her birds-eye view of fisheries policy, Craig is impressed with the commitment to her professional development.

“They really want this to be an educational year,” she said.  “Program and agency staff are committed that we experience as much as possible, and that those experiences are tailored to our interests.”

Ethan Lucas

Ethan Lucas

Lucas is starting a position with NOAAs Coral Reef Watch after finishing his degree last June.  Lucas is no stranger to coral reef issues, having completed a three-year Peace Corps tour in the Philippines and a masters in local governance of marine protected areas.  Yet even this extensive experience left him with a knowledge gap he is seeking to fill through the Knauss.

“I wanted to meld the knowledge gained through my degree and the Peace Corps with understanding of policy-making at the national level,” he said, “Im hoping it will make me better able to translate scientific data into policies that work at the local level.”

Combest-Friedman, who recently completed her masters, also brings extensive international experience with her, having worked as a consultant for the Natural Capital Institute in Panama and then U.S. Aid in Madagascar before conducting her masters project in the Philippines.

Chelsea Combest-Friedman

Chelsea Combest-Friedman

Combest-Friedmans experience left her especially present to the opportunity of the Knauss Fellowship:  “The opportunity to spend a year in Washington D.C. is huge.  In addition to seeing how the United States will address climate change through policy, really getting to understand the constraints and processes facing national governments in a hands-on way is unique,” she said.  “That knowledge is critical because even when working overseas one is usually working within a national framework.”

Combest-Friedman is also looking forward to her year in D.C. as a chance to evaluate international careers with not only federal agencies, but foundations and NGOs.

The outgoing cohort (2010-2011) who recently completed their year in D.C. is an equally impressive group, three out of four of whom are also UW graduates.  Fellows Danielle Rioux, Joe Zelasney, and Ian Smith, all from the School of Marine and Environmental affairs, have decided to continue with policy work in Washington D.C.  Delisse Ortiz, from Washington State University, intends to take her broadened perspective into research and teaching.

No matter what their career goals, fellows consistently reported the value of high level policy experience.  Rioux half-jokingly maintains, “I went to graduate school in order to apply for the Knauss. It really puts you at the center – so you can see why decisions get made when they get made, and how to present science in the way people making the decisions need to see it.”

Reichley, who has worked with more than 30 fellows in the past 11 years, concurs.  “Knauss fellows definitely are a diverse group who apply their policy experience to many different goals and environmental concerns.  Most come away from the experience with an eye to how the government really works and a broader perspective on successfully dealing with the range of marine resource issues, from economics to environment to human impacts.”