VIMS graduate students bring scientific expertise to Washington

Knauss Fellows step outside of academia to explore marine policy

Three graduate students from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science are currently applying their scientific expertise in our nation’s capital as John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellows.

The Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship Program provides a unique educational experience to graduate students who have an interest in ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources, and in the national policy decisions affecting those resources.

Named after one of Sea Grant's founders, former NOAA Administrator John A. Knauss, the program matches highly qualified graduate students with "hosts" in the legislative and executive branch of government in Washington, D.C. The fellows—who began their placements in early February—will spend the year working in their respective offices.

Alison ColdenVIMS Ph.D. student Alison Colden is on the staff of California Congressman Mike Thompson, where she focuses on environmental issues as they relate to government and policy. Master’s student Emily Egginton Skeehan is working as the Strategic Planning and External Affairs Coordinator for NOAA, and recent Master’s graduate Stephen Manley is the new Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Fellow for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Office of Protected Resources.

Colden is slated to graduate with her Ph.D. from VIMS this year, and says she applied for the fellowship to learn how policy is made from the ground up. “I wanted to see policy move from idea to law,” she says. “This allows me to see at what points I can contribute my expertise to help shape the best policies based on the best available science.”

As a legislative fellow, Colden is responsible for developing and evaluating policy initiatives within her portfolio areas, which include climate change, ocean policy, fisheries, natural resources, public lands, and crude-by-rail. “I advise Representative Thompson on pending legislation and will hopefully help draft legislation as the year continues,” she says.

Skeehan is working in the office of the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the Office of Communications and External Affairs. She says her position offers a bird’s eye view of NOAA, presenting a great opportunity to participate in strategic planning at the highest level.

Skeehan says her duties range from serving as a liaison between the Under Secretary, Assistant Secretaries, and external stakeholders; planning and executing Resilience Roundtables—a planning series of events to discuss resilience; and drafting monthly external stakeholder newsletters.

In addition, Skeehan will be working with the leadership team to ensure NOAA is successfully accomplishing its goals and strategic planning objectives, while reaching stakeholders who care about issues ranging from healthy ecosystems to pristine coastlines and dynamic communities.Emily Egginton Skeehan

As a part of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response team, Manley’s main responsibility is to plan and coordinate the 2016 National Marine Mammal Stranding Network Conference, which brings together members of the marine mammal stranding network from across the country to share local knowledge concerning marine mammal science, rescue, care, and issues they face in their area of the country.

Manley says he applied for the fellowship out of curiosity to see how science informs national policy. “The fellowship is designed to give research scientists the opportunity to see how policy is made and how science can inform policy so that in the future we can be mindful of policy needs in our research,” he says.

Colden, whose Ph.D. research focuses on the physical aspects of restored oyster reefs that contribute to their performance both in terms of oyster populations and the provision of habitat for other estuarine organisms, says she mostly focuses on coastal and estuarine habitat, conservation, and restoration as a fellow. “I can apply my experience with oysters to other habitat-building organisms like marsh grasses to help evaluate policies that will have reverberating effects throughout the ecosystem,” she says.

For her graduate research, Skeehan is modeling the sustainability of proposed restoration activities in the Lynnhaven River ecosystem under predicted climate warming and sea-level-rise scenarios. “This relates to the work I am doing at NOAA because we are trying to evaluate ecosystem services and predict climate-change impacts on natural infrastructure in order to make communities more resilient,” she says.

Skeehan says she plans to pursue a career in the policy realm after she completes her graduate research, and is hoping to develop contacts through the fellowship to enrich her work in this field in the future.

Stephen ManleyManley also hopes to continue with NOAA, but hopes to pursue a career that blends research with policy. “This has been an eye-opening experience so far,” he says. “Seeing how policies are made has been fascinating, but I hope to pursue more of a research role while always keeping policy goals in mind.”

Manley says the fellowship is important because it allows students to experience how science is conducted and used outside of academia. “Academia is great and we all have spent a lot of time in that world and culture, but it’s also valuable to see how industries and government agencies that use science operate.”

Skeehan agrees, saying “Scientists needs to learn communication skills to make a difference outside of the academic community. This fellowship gives the fellows a lot of responsibility and treats us like full-time employees with all of the same expectations and opportunities.”

“This fellowship allows scientists to see the other side of the coin of how policy is made,” says Colden. “Sound, science-based policy can only be made if that scientific information is available in a format policymakers can understand and use. This fellowship is allowing us to put ourselves right in the middle of that process and allows us to help by incorporating our experience along the way.”