Monday, November 13, 2017

Uniting against harmful algal blooms: An update from Margo Davis

One of the standout aspects of my fellowship at the Great Lakes Commission so far is the collaborative and multidisciplinary focus that underlines our work. It has been an eye-opening experience to see how different groups and interests come to the table to address collective concerns. Perhaps the best examples that I have had the opportunity to work on are the harmful algal blooms (HABs) projects I am involved with. I work with our partners to help develop factsheets, organize data to be used for visualizations, and coordinate webinars and other information sharing opportunities.

HABs in the Great Lakes basin are typically characterized by a green scum or mat of algae, and they have the potential to produce toxins that are harmful to people and animals. Western Lake Erie is the most prominent and egregious example of HABs problems in the Great Lakes, but HABs concerns are present across the Great Lakes basin. HABs in the Great Lakes are caused by excess nutrients entering our waterways – often largely from agricultural land use, but also from urban sources like wastewater and stormwater.

Algal blooms in Lake Erie's western basin can threaten drinking water supplies, aquatic habitats, and recreational waters. Photo: Zachary Haslick, Aerial Associates Photography, Inc.

Although blooms are caused by actions on farms, at wastewater treatment plants, and in cities, the resulting toxins and scums are responded to by public health officials, water treatment plants, and the fishing and tourism industry, so the solution to HABs sits between these numerous parties. This creates a diverse and complicated mix of partners – and it has been fascinating to see how knowledge can be shared and alliances can be forged. That is not to say that conversations are always easy and agreement is always forthcoming, but the act of involving stakeholders from all sides of the issue is incredibly valuable.

This was exemplified at the Ohio Sea Grant’s "State of the Science: Understanding Algal Blooms" conference. The table I was sitting at included an agricultural researcher, water quality researchers, and an agribusiness leader. Our table was just a microcosm of the various fields represented at the conference, which went on to include water treatment specialists and public health researchers. It also included people from both inside and outside of the Lake Erie basin, highlighting the importance of sharing information across the Great Lakes watersheds facing HABs concerns.

Despite the numerous sectors involved, progress on Lake Erie simply is not where it needs to be. As is evident in the photo above, the bloom was raging this year, coming in as the third worst bloom in the last 15 years. To better track the wide-ranging actions on Lake Erie and resulting progress toward goals of reducing nutrients, the Great Lakes Commission launched a website with The Nature Conservancy under the Blue Accounting initiative. ErieStat will bring the varying efforts from different jurisdictions to the same platform, using common goals and metrics. It has been exciting to be a part of this project as new collaborations are built in the Great Lakes basin.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Living in Canada: A crash course from Michael Mezzacapo

The IJC offices enjoy an unbeatable view of the Detroit River. Photo: Michael Mezzacapo

After I learned I was awarded the Michigan Sea Grant fellowship opportunity at the International Joint Commission (IJC), I realized that I had a unique opportunity to reside in Canada for the year. Moving is never easy, let alone moving to a foreign country. Seemingly simple aspects of your daily life can become challenging due to certain regulations or requirements. Information about the immigration process can also be confusing and located in many different places. The prior Fellows have lived in the US and commuted to Windsor, as all of the IJC American employees do. My goal here is to give future Sea Grant fellows interested in the IJC a quick peek into the process of temporarily moving to Canada, should that be the choice of future Fellows. *The advice below is for informational purposes and not recommendations or guidance from the IJC or the U.S. or Canadian governments. No compensation was received and no recommendations are intended.*
1.     Housing: The first major hurdle to moving anywhere is finding a place to live. Windsor has a decent mix of apartments and houses for rent at rates cheaper than downtown Detroit, but they tend to go fast. Classified internet sites are your best bet for scoping out housing in the area. Consider renting a temporary residence through one of the major home share providers for a month to get a feel for the city and then make a choice on where you want to live. There are several neighborhoods and districts in Windsor; research each area and make a decision based on what fits your needs best. I chose to live in Walkerville, which is a neighborhood close to the IJC office but slightly quieter than downtown while still offering a great selection of restaurants, shops, and bars. I walk to work every day and have a great view of the Detroit River.
TIP: Think about renting a furnished place. I chose this route; it's far easier than hauling all your stuff over the border. Check home sharing sites which let you rent short-term; sometimes hosts will rent long-term contracts at discounted rates. Plus, you reduce the number of bills you have to pay because electricity, the internet, and hydro are usually lumped into your monthly payment.
2.     Transportation: Let's face it, cars are the dominant mode of transportation here. After all, this area is where the automobile industry was born. But the city of Windsor has an excellent bus system that is relatively cheap. You can even take the city-run tunnel bus across the border to Detroit. So don’t fret if you don’t own a car. And if you are bringing your car, you can simply keep your current U.S. state driver’s license and plates. Because the position is temporary, there is no need to import your vehicle or change your plates and driver’s license. I would suggest obtaining a copy of your automobile title, registration, and insurance and keeping them in a folder in case customs needs these.
TIP: You may need to find an insurance company that covers you in both the U.S. and Canada. Most larger insurance companies operate in both the U.S. and Canada.
3.     Cell Phone: This was something that nearly slipped my mind when researching the moving process. After all, you will be in a foreign country. There are a couple of options here: get a new cell phone plan in Canada or keep your U.S. plan. Be prepared to pay a hefty amount for both options. My service provider has a plan that allows me to use my phone in Canada as if I was in the U.S. (including unlimited talk and text), without any extra fees or charges. Many cellular providers in Canada provide similar plans, if you wish to go that route.
TIP: Get enough data! You’ll want a decent amount to use navigation applications, etc. Some service providers will slow your speeds after a certain amount of data usage in Canada. Also, some internet services won’t work when on a Canadian IP address. My suggestion is to get a VPN router application. This way you can watch your favorite programs or use your preferred paid streaming services.
4.     Importing your belongings and pets: Because I chose to rent a furnished place, I could pack everything I needed in my car. But bringing your things across the border can bring challenges in the form of paperwork and restrictions. You can find more information here. I suggest creating a spreadsheet of everything you are bringing with you and include its corresponding “yard sale” value. Ironically, the process of bringing your furry friend over is quite easy! Instructions for that are located here. But remember, your pets will need updated rabies vaccines. Also, make sure they are comfortable and have plenty of food and water, as crossing the border for the first time can take a few hours.
TIP: Make copies of your documents!
5.     Bank account: Banking isn’t all that different in Canada, but there are things to think about. Because of U.S. regulations, you can’t send your paycheck to a Canadian bank account. You’ll have to create a U.S. account with one of the Canadian banks first. Confusing? It certainly is. Essentially you create an account that you can have U.S. funds deposited into and then transfer those to your Canadian account. Other options are available too. For example, you can send your paycheck to an existing U.S. bank account and simply find a credit card that has zero foreign transaction fees and use that to pay for items. However, you’ll then have to pay high fees to withdraw money from the ATM in cases where cash is needed. Be mindful of the exchange rate and fluctuations in the market.

6.     Health care: Canada has universal health coverage, and this includes temporary workers. The process is easy and painless; find out more here. You’ll need to be physically in Canada for three months before you can receive coverage, but you can apply the first day you move. Purchasing temporary medical coverage while you wait is highly recommended. Check the internet for companies that offer a variety of coverage plans so you can find the one that best suits you.
Although there are similarities to living in the U.S., residing in Canada provides me with first-hand experience of life in another country. Windsor is a diverse city, and its residents have been warm and welcoming. I enjoy working with a binational staff and the opportunities it provides. Each candidate’s situation will be unique, and it is important to evaluate your own needs, desires, and finances. Although it may seem complicated at first, my suggestion is to break things down and take a closer look; you’ll be glad you did.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Advice from the first American woman to walk in space: Reflections from Ellen Spooner

Ellen Spooner with Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, who served as the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from March 2014 through January 2017.

The first American woman to walk in space — appointed as the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from March 2014 through January 2017 — addressed us, the 2016 Knauss Fellows, at our end-of-the-year pinning ceremony. As we closed out our fellowship and began the next chapter of our careers, she shared interesting stories from her past and imparted some of her wisdom. Along with the typical but always reassuring graduation advice of accepting the failures and successes in life as part of the winding path to reach our professional goals, Dr. Kathy Sullivan gave some notable guidance. 

As one of the first female astronauts in NASA, Dr. Sullivan spoke about the leadership there and how they taught her a great deal about how she wants — and doesn’t want — to lead others. She said that with every boss we have, we should take note of what we like and don’t like about their leadership style, write it down, and use that to reflect upon how we will lead others. With my experience at NOAA, I was lucky enough to add a fair amount to the list of leadership skills I want to emulate. NOAA leadership was able to keep that fine balance of getting work done while keeping the mood in the office light and upbeat. To be fair, though, it is hard to not be excited about your work when your job is to protect adorable seals and other amazing marine life.

The funny thing about being an astronaut is that the job market is pretty small without a lot of options outside NASA. So when she decided to leave, she found a way to dissect the duties she had as an astronaut into skills that were translatable to other jobs. The ability to translate your specific skills and experience in one job to another is an invaluable ability that will get you far. As a trained scientist moving into the professional world of communication and education, I really resonated with this advice.

Then Dr. Sullivan gave an example of how a scientific background prepares you to be a good leader. While she was a professor at Ohio State University, she noticed a difference in the students who studied other subjects compared to those who studied science. Students would come into her office hours to discuss their grade on a paper, and she would ask them to defend why they made the argument they did in the paper. She often found that non-science majors based their arguments on rationalized beliefs, while science majors provided facts as evidence to support their conclusions. Perhaps a background in science provides the skills needed to dissect an issue, analyze the information at hand, and make a decision based on evidence, which is what successful leaders do.

At the end of Dr. Sullivan’s speech, each Knauss fellow had the opportunity to stand up and share some of our most memorable moments from the fellowship. When it came to my turn, there were so many moments I could have mentioned, from discussing the importance of ocean literacy in schools with leaders from all across the world, to providing low-income students with access to science education and highlighting a path to science careers. But I decided to take the opportunity to thank my fellow fellows, because my most memorable moments during the fellowship were those late-night discussions over (possibly a few too many) beers, debating the current issues of our government, the environment, and particularly the ocean. Penny Pritzker, the former Secretary of Commerce, once said that “the people you surround yourself with are the key to long-term success,” and I felt truly blessed to have been surrounded by such bright and talented people for the past year.

After we each shared our moments, we got a photo-op with Dr. Kathy Sullivan herself. I was so excited to meet her that I was the first one in line to get my photo taken. Dr. Sullivan waved to me and said, “Come on over, Ellen.” That was the perfect ending to an amazing year: the Administrator of NOAA herself had remembered my name.

So in the end, no matter where you came from and where you are going, learn to dissect what you have done into skills that can translate into different jobs and you will reach the stars.

Ellen and Dr. Sullivan mark the occasion with a handshake.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Choosing the Right Path: Trevor Meckley Looks Back

Trevor Meckley with Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, who served as the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from March 2014 through January 2017.
The Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship provided me the exact experience it advertised: a “unique educational and professional experience for postgraduate students.” But I didn’t necessarily follow the exact mantra repeated to fellows during the Knauss placement week. During placement week, fellows are matched up with host offices through a weeklong process that culminates in a draft, where offices rank fellows and fellows get the opportunity to choose their office in the order that they appear on the ranked lists. Surprisingly, this professional ocean science nerd draft receives far fewer tailgaters than either the NFL or NBA drafts. Maybe the 9 a.m. start time was the problem.

However, the important Knaussian twist on those better-known drafts is that draftees still get to pick their placement position based on the order each office ranked them. In other words, a fellow could end up selecting an office that ranked them lower, if other fellows above them selected a different position. During placement week, one of the two most common pieces of advice were to “go in a new direction and step outside of your comfort zone.” I had a slightly different and perhaps more boring approach to finding my host office. My four priorities for selecting a fellowship position were:
  1. A position that I would enjoy and might want in a career.
  2. A position focused on the nexus between science and how management communities use the science.
  3. A position with an office that had a track record for hiring successful Knauss Fellows or supporting contractors.
  4. A fellowship with a group of colleagues that seemed like a group I would be happy working with, allowing me to experience the office dynamic for a year. 
Much of this perspective came from being a recent graduate student with a first child on the way, longing for a sure future and the beginning of a career. I wanted to set myself up for a position that might work out long-term.

The year ended as I wanted it to end. I work for CSS, a professional and technical services provider that contracts employees to many federal offices, including my host office, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) at NOAA. This means I work in my host office managing projects for the Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise Program (EESLR). EESLR provides a suite of science products to inform coastal managers of local coastal vulnerability and solutions to mitigate flood risk on our coastline. Projects principally explore the vulnerability of natural coastal ecosystems (e.g., salt marsh, mangroves) to evaluate the potential for natural structures (e.g., barrier islands, wetlands, etc.) to reduce coastal inundation. Projects also aim to develop best practices for the inclusion of ecosystems in coastal protection strategies. I get to manage projects that complete high-level science leading directly to tools that can be used by decision makers. I am not conducting the science; my role is ensuring that ongoing funded research leads to products that are valuable. This begins during the strategic writing of the competitive funding opportunities and careful selection of the best proposals. This is a position at the nexus of science and the management communities using the science, with a great group of colleagues, that I could be happy in for the long term.

The funny thing about my year in which I took a more careful approach than advised to finding a position — even though it worked — is that I no longer feel the same pressure for finding a position. The Knauss placement week, combined with the effort of job-searching during the fellowship, has distilled useful knowledge about job-searching and building relationships.

One of the most valuable perspectives I gained was that, if embraced, career change can be exciting and rewarding. If I want to work around federal science in this era, at any time I could be searching for a new job or switching focus despite being successful in my position, partially as a result of working with changing political administrations. I’m aware that this will not be my last job; thankfully, there are many jobs I could be happy doing. As long as you work hard and are successful, there will be positions for you and they often present themselves organically through the network of contacts that you develop and maintain.

The bottom line is that the Knauss process has completely changed the way I think about interviews and my career. When selecting a position, I have no interest in overselling myself or fighting for a job that doesn’t fit. It can be easier said than done, if you are job-searching when out of work, but there should be a strong feeling of a good fit when taking the position. This brings me to the second and primary mantra discussed during the Knauss Fellowship: “Follow the force.” It is a nerdy way of saying that you should feel drawn to the position you are interviewing for and the people you will be working with. It is really just a catchier way of reiterating my 1st and 4th position-hunting priorities. This mantra is one that I will keep with me, and you would be hard-pressed to find any former Knauss fellow that disagrees with it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Last-Minute Survival Guide to Sea Grant Fellowship Applications (IJC Fellow Edition): Advice from Allison Voglesong

The deadline to apply for the International Joint Commission-Sea Grant Fellowship is less than two weeks away. It is amazing to think that a year ago I was scrambling to finesse my essay, wrangle recommendation letters, and manage anxieties over whether my numerous inquiries to the Michigan Sea Grant staff disqualified me based on my apparent oblivion. For those of you doing now what I was doing last year, this blog may help. This blog provides tips for general Sea Grant Fellowship applications as well as specific pointers for the International Joint Commission Fellowship application.

This view could be yours!

Tips for Sea Grant Fellowship applicants:
  • Register your application ASAP. Do not wait until the last minute. Using the online application link, start your new application. You will get a fellowship code and a link that will allow you to go back in and submit your documents to complete your application. 
  • Ask questions. Between January and the February deadline, I sent a dozen emails with questions ranging from eligibility to support for my recommendation letter writers. The Michigan Sea Grant staff are helpful and prompt in their replies — and they will not think you are a basket case for asking many questions if you are polite, gracious, and to the point. 
  • Give recommendation letter authors adequate prior notice. In fact, at this juncture in the application timeline, my advice may be moot. If you are asking for letters of recommendation within a two-week timeframe, don’t be afraid to send them a draft letter you have written for them. Send your essay and resume and provide your authors with the key points they will need to endorse you. Check to ensure your authors receive the link to submit their letter, and if it was lost in the interwebs just ask the friendly folks at to re-send the link. 
    • Get a mix of representation. If you are not currently enrolled and wrapping up an educational program by the time the fellowship will start, get a recommendation from a teacher or advisor from your current or most recent graduate institution. For those of you who plan on continuing your education after the fellowship concludes: don’t include future academic references, unless they were also past or current educators. Ask your supervisor from a recent or most relevant job or internship to demonstrate your workplace experience and ethic. 
    • Ask someone close to you. Are you torn between two authors? Choose one from the most relevant experience instead of simply the most recent job. Related: request a recommendation letter from an author who knows your skills directly, rather than someone prestigious but with no intimate familiarity of your unique talents. 
    • Be a pest. Politely make sure your recommendation letter authors can and will complete your letters within the deadline. You can complete your Sea Grant application before your letters are in, and you will get an automated “APPLICATION COMPLETION” email after you submit your application through the online system. Be a gentle, polite pest and follow up with your authors to ensure their letters are in before your deadline.

Tips for International Joint Commission-Sea Grant Fellowship applicants:
  • Write to your best self. As always, the IJC is looking for the strongest overall candidate. When I applied, the IJC was also specifically looking for someone specializing at the intersection of Great-Lakes-water-policy-science-communication-multimedia-production. If you are a specialist in these same areas, great, I hope you apply! If you are a scientist who has the entire Lake Michigan food web memorized, great, I hope you apply! The Fellowship RFP is designed so you have the opportunity to highlight your unique skill set and expertise. Which leads me to my next tip: 
  • Do your homework. This fellowship will place you at the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Regional Office, so it will be very helpful for you to know what that means. Hint: you really MUST become acquainted with the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which spells out the jurisdiction of the Great Lakes Regional Office. It will help to know about the overall legal framework of the IJC (see the Boundary Waters Treaty). You may travel to either of the IJC’s section offices in Washington, D.C., or Ottawa, Ontario, that work on issues for other boundary waters as well, but you will work in snowy — I mean sunny —Windsor, Ontario, the headquarters for the IJC’s Great Lakes water quality work. Get to know the alphabet soup of acronyms relevant to the work here (there won’t be a quiz at your interview, but you will be better off the more you know): 
    • GLRO: Great Lakes Regional Office 
    • GLWQA: Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (“the Agreement”), and amendments
    • AOC: Areas of Concern 
    • BPAC: Binational Public Advisory Council 
    • LAMP: Lakewide Action and Management Plan 
    • CMC: Chemicals of Mutual Concern 
    • LEEP: Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority 
    • BMP: Best Management Practice 
    • AIS: Aquatic Invasive Species 
    • BWT: Boundary Waters Treaty 
  • Be clear about your intentions. What do you want to gain from this fellowship opportunity? How will a year at the IJC’s GLRO help you in your education or career? This fellowship will be a full-time job for you for 12 months, and you will want to make the most of it, so bring some ideas about the topics or projects you want to work on and benefit from in the process. Become familiar with the current work and priorities of the GLRO, which you can find out by perusing the recent news releases and following the IJC’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram accounts. Yes, I know the personal education and career goal statement for the fellowship asks you what you expect to gain in the way of career development, but take it to the next level and be specific. If you do not have Great Lakes experience already, explain why you want to venture into this new-to-you field. If you are an old pro with Great Lakes water quality issues, how does the IJC’s unique binational, conflict-management position give you a new perspective on familiar issues? How do you hope to be challenged? These are the big-picture questions you are going to need to ask yourself to complete a top-notch application.

Other FAQs:
  • For whom would I work? You would work for the IJC GLRO Monday through Friday 9-5 (ish). However, you would not become a U.S. State Department employee, nor would you be individually contracted with the U.S. government. Rather, you get paid via Michigan Sea Grant. However, you do not work for Michigan Sea Grant; they sign your checks and help you get the fellowship, and occasionally you will blog for them. 
  • Should I be taking classes concurrently? As a Fellow, you are not permitted to take a class (or classes) toward a degree or certificate during the Fellowship; you should complete coursework by or on June 1. In my case, I deferred the start of my grad school until after this fellowship due to the full-time obligation of the Fellowship. In my opinion, it was a great decision. 
  • I submitted my application. What next? If (let’s be optimistic and say “when”) you are selected, you will receive an invitation to interview from Michigan Sea Grant. You will meet with a team of Sea Grant staff and IJC staff. Then this team will select the top few applicants to endorse and you will receive a Decision to Endorse email. The IJC will coordinate with you to schedule your second interview. You may be asked to submit additional documentation before this next interview, which will be in Windsor at the GLRO with several IJC staff including the GLRO Director. Then, I hope, dear reader, you will receive the fellowship offer email – make sure you are sitting down when it comes as you will likely be quite excited! 

I hope these tips help the prospective Fellows out there. If you are reading this blog, you are a step in the right direction for preparing the best application possible. The most important advice is: be yourself. Keep up the great work! The IJC will be lucky to have you at its service.

Allison Voglesong
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Monday, January 9, 2017

Engaging Youth in Marine Science: An Update from Ellen Spooner

After a grueling week of sitting through 52 presentations back to back, doing 13 interviews across the city, and hours of self-marketing at evening “Happy hours” — otherwise known as Placement Week for Knauss fellows — I got the education/communications position shared between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Office of Communications and the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s Ocean education team.

This was very exciting to me, as it provided the unique opportunity to see how two very well-established and impactful institutions work toward the protection of our ocean and inform the public about that protection. Both institutions carry out marine research and share that science with the public, but they use different methods for doing so.

The Smithsonian Natural History Museum is the single most visited museum in the United States and is one of the top 30 places visited in the world with 7 million visitors a year. In addition, it has the largest collection of marine fish and whales in the world.

NOAA Fisheries is largely responsible for the management and protection of all fish, mammals, and sea turtles that live or come into U.S. waters. The United States has the largest exclusive economic zone or special rights over the largest area of ocean in the world. Hence, NOAA Fisheries is responsible for a large part of life in the ocean and is a world leader in doing so. Therefore, these institutions have a large influence around the world and have been excellent places for me to learn from the best.

In this unique position, I bring the vast wealth of ocean knowledge from NOAA to the millions of visitors at the Smithsonian. I do this using a variety of methods which include bringing NOAA scientists into the museum to talk with our visitors, or helping update exhibits at the museum by providing the latest information and research on marine organisms from NOAA. Through this work, I have had the opportunity to learn how to strategically communicate with Congress, the press, and the public on scientific and sometimes controversial topics and how to engage museum visitors with science in a fun and interactive way.

Yet, one of the most important audiences I have worked with in this position is students from underserved communities. I had several very rewarding experiences working with a variety of students whose interest and excitement about the ocean astounded even me.

One of my first experiences was with NOAA Enrichment in Marine Sciences and Oceanography (NEMO) program, where local Washington, D.C. high school and middle school students work with marine science experts to learn about the ocean and do various marine science activities after school. I was thrilled to find out that one of the schools that participates in this program was in my own neighborhood, so I jumped on the opportunity to get involved. It is so easy to get caught up in your own life but it is so important to give back to the community you live in and here was my chance. There were about 20 middle school students in this classroom, and the moment we brought out the preserved squids for a lesson on physiology, there was excitement, fear, and intrigue. We eased the students into handling the squid by teaching them about the outside features first, and once we cut inside, they were all excited about it.

Squid dissection at Mckinley Middle School.

There was just as much excitement when I brought my dear friend and extremely motivated shark biologist, Symone Johnson, into the Natural History Museum to speak with our visitors about the work she has done researching sharks. She brought a real shark jaw and had photos of her work for students and visitors to look at. During this program, a large group of children ran over to her and all wanted to touch the shark teeth. They had never seen someone who looked like them do that before (meaning marine biology). We're excited to get involved.

Symone Johnson holding a real shark jaw for a group of students.

Not only did I get to work with students in Washington D.C., but I also had the opportunity to travel down to Louisiana with the Gear Up program. Smithsonian is a partner in this program, which prepares low-income students for college and a future career. For this program, I developed a lesson on ocean currents that shows how the ocean regulates our climate.

After I taught one of the classes, a student asked me, “Are you a Marine Biologist?” I answered, “I guess you could say that.” Then, she asked if it was hard to become one. I responded “I'm not going to lie, there were some times in school that were really difficult for me, but I always found the help I needed to work through it, either by going to my teachers’ office hours, getting help from my classmates, going to tutoring, or reading the book. So even though there are difficult parts of school, there is always someone or something that can help you out. You just have to find it.” She then responded by saying she might want to do that, be a Marine Biologist. This was one of the most rewarding moments of my career. When working with students, you know not every student is going to find what you teach them interesting, but that's not the goal. The goal is to expose them to as much as possible so they can know what their choices are and figure out what they like from there. I was able to help one student find her interest.

Students participating in the Gear Up program in Louisiana.

I could not have had these amazing experiences and this fellowship without the help of so many people along the way, and I want to be that person for others. I want to provide that opportunity to as many students as I can. So I want to thank all those who have supported me along the way: from those who helped me in undergrad through those horrible chemistry exams, to those in graduate school who enlightened me to all the issues of the world, and to those during this fellowship who have helped me grow as a professional and have shown me how it's done best.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Reflections: An Update from Allison Voglesong

Standing at the water’s edge, you can reasonably expect to see yourself peering back—that is, assuming there aren’t too many waves. Water acts like a mirror, and it’s normal for people to want to see themselves reflected in it.

Over the past few months, I have been working on multimedia communication projects that support the International Joint Commission’s public engagement mission in the Great Lakes. Communication is key to public engagement, and I’m particularly focused on understanding and improving the role of our constituents’ representation in our media. Like water, people who are integral to Great Lakes issues and solutions want to see themselves reflected in our communication products.

Young women canoeing at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada.
At the Great Lakes Public Forum, organized by the Environmental Protection Agency and Environment and Climate Change Canada, the International Joint Commission held a public comment session to solicit comments on the Canadian and US governments’ progress toward the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The event was held in early October at the Allstream Center in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and attracted scholars, activists, and industry reps from around the Great Lakes basin on both sides of the border. You can watch the whole thing for yourself here, or watch a summary video here, created by yours truly.

Sunset near the Allstream Center in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
My project leading up to the Forum was to create a short video that would play at the beginning of the IJC’s public comment session to frame the purpose of the event: why the IJC was the one receiving the public’s feedback, how that is rooted in its mandate under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and what the audience can expect the IJC to do with their comments afterwards. This video project was my most challenging and fulfilling Fellowship project to date: Listening to the Great Lakes: About the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

If I was asked to make a feature-length documentary or a short film, perhaps I would not have learned as much about the importance of helping an audience to see themselves in communications. But to summarize, in less than five minutes, a living policy document that addresses specific scientific water issues and also explain what the IJC is, its role, and why the “general public” should care enough to engage and provide IJC with comments…on a 150+ page government technical report, no less.

Before any lights, cameras, and filming action, I had to think hard about my audience. I didn’t have time to extol platitudes about how much of the world’s fresh surface waters are in the gifts of the glaciers—the folks showing up to comment to the IJC already know the basic stats. I didn’t have time to explain each of the ten annexes of the Agreement, though I’m sure plenty audience members couldn’t list them all off, either.

I had to focus on tapping into the why – what was it that made folks want to come to the meeting to say something to the IJC? They want to be seen and feel heard. They want to see themselves and their Great Lakes issues reflected in the IJC’s recommendations. 

That's how I came up with the "listening" lens for the video project. Participants should see themselves not only as at the proverbial table, or simply invited to be in the room, but as an essential partner with governments in restoring and protecting the lakes. Citizens are an integral part of the history that brought the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to life. The video became a way of holding a mirror up to the audience, to remind them what they accomplished already by working to hold government accountable to their actions. What do they see when they peer into the water and see their reflection? I wanted them to really see themselves, and that's how I came to the video's refrain: "You are the voice of the Great Lakes."

L to R: Commissioners Moy, Pollack, and Bouchard at the Great Lakes Public Forum for the IJC's public comment session in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
The IJC also visited Milwaukee, WI, later in October to host a scientific roundtable public comment session that solicited comments, recommendations, and updates on Great Lakes science issues from community members. Check out the wrap-up video I produced here. In the spring of 2017, we expect to host more public comment sessions across the entire basin, from the far northwest corner of Lake Superior to the east on the St. Lawrence River.

L to R: Val Klump, Dean of Freshwater Science, UWM; Sally Cole-Misch; Michael Toope; Commissioner Lana Pollack; GLRO Director Trish Morris; Commissioner Rich Moy; Matthew Child; Lilith Fowler, Executive Director of Harbor District, Inc., Milwaukee; Commissioner Richard Morgan; and Commissioner Benoit Bouchard on the UWM Research Vessel in Milwaukee, WI.
In addition, we’ve launched the democracy platform for individuals to submit comments and engage in topical discussions on issues they care most about. Many IJC public comment strategies ask constituents to post their written comments once or attend one public engagement event. The IJC’s public engagement for the Triennial Assessment of Progress, the ultimate report card on the Canadian and US governments’ progress toward Agreement goals, is much more in-depth and requires a special place to help citizens communicate and discuss what they consider to be the Great Lakes’ successes and challenges. I encourage students looking to apply to this Fellowship for 2017 to fully explore and get involved in the monthly discussions. November’s discussion topic is, aptly, public participation and engagement. We’re looking forward to even more feedback about whether citizens really do see themselves in the media and work of the IJC.

Can you see yourself in a Michigan Sea Grant Fellowship at the IJC in 2017? Share your own reflections on this post in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to respond to questions any of you may have.

Allison Voglesong

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Cruise: An Update from Trevor Meckley

For my Knauss fellowship year, I am serving as the NOAA Hypoxia Coordination and Transition Fellow with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research (CSCOR) located within the National Ocean Service (NOS). My fellowship year has included a host of excellent experiences; however, I want to discuss one opportunity that did not come to fruition but became an excellent experience nonetheless.

My fellowship supports the planning, execution, and outreach efforts of NOAA’s two major competitive hypoxia programs: the Northern Gulf of Mexico Ecosystems and Hypoxia Assessment Program (NGOMEX) and the Coastal Hypoxia Research Program (CHRP). The cornerstone of these efforts is research and monitoring activities aimed at understanding and improving natural resource management in the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, the largest hypoxic area in the US.

Hypoxic zones or “dead zones” are aquatic regions with little to no oxygen. This is often caused by algal overgrowth fueled by high levels of nutrients, primarily from activities such as industrialized agriculture and inadequate wastewater treatment. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico affects nationally important commercial and recreational fisheries. The low oxygen levels cannot support most marine life and habitats in near-bottom waters. Organisms that can flee the dead zones leave the area, while those which cannot leave are stressed or die of suffocation. Reducing nutrients flowing to the Gulf would help the situation since, under historical oxygen conditions, this area supported a rich diversity of marine life, critical habitats, and a number of key fisheries.

Oxygen concentrations in bottom waters along the Louisiana shelf from July 28-August 3, 2015.
Image: N. Rabalais (LUMCON), R. Turner (LSU). Funded by NOAA CSCOR 

As part of larger regional research efforts, CSCOR provides funding for an annual hypoxia monitoring cruise in the northern Gulf of Mexico, which has been led by former Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) senior scientist Nancy Rabalais for 30 years, reaching back to 1985 (a year before I was born!). Monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico has been a roller coaster, with pulses of funding followed by regular losses in funding. Despite this, the annual cruise has been maintained as the only long-term dataset of oxygen monitoring in the dead zone, a true feat for both LUMCON and NOAA. As part of my fellowship experience, I was offered the opportunity to participate in the 31st cruise through my host office. Although I have led many projects involving research on small boats and assisted on day voyages on larger boats like the 101-foot USGS Fisheries Research Vessel, the Sturgeon, I have never gone on a multiple-day research cruise in an ocean. This would be a great new experience.

Trevor Meckley onboard the USGS Sturgeon in Lake Huron.
Image: Eric Willman

The annual hypoxia monitoring cruise serves three principal purposes:
  1. It is integral to determining what progress has occurred towards reducing the hypoxia zone to the target size of 5,000 square kilometers, a key metric of the Interagency Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Taskforce (below). The graph shows that the current 5-year average is much higher than the goal.

    Size of bottom-water hypoxia in mid-summer, with goal and current 5-year average.
    Image: N. Rabalais, R. Turner
  2. Hypoxic zone area, along with nutrient loading and discharge measurements from the Mississippi River, provides nutrient reduction guidance to the Mississippi Basin when used in a modeling framework (below). If the nutrient input is reduced upstream to the levels shown in the goal area (35-45 percent), we can expect that the hypoxic zone size will shrink to the goal size of 5,000 square kilometers. The annual cruise and models derived from it are absolutely critical to the Hypoxia Task Force (HTF) in setting and assessing these nutrient reduction goals. The HTF action plan is based on these goals.

    Nitrogen load reduction that would be required to reduce hypoxic zone area to target size.
    Image: Hypoxia Task Force Action Plan

  3. Modeling advancements have improved 3-D predictions of hypoxic zone size through time, but the cruise is imperative to ensuring that the models are performing well (below). 

    Color bar on right indicates thickness of hypoxic layer (0-14 meters). Horizontal lines are depth contours. Offshore edge of hypoxic zone corresponds to depths of 25-30 meters.
    Image: Dubravko Justic
As the time of the cruise approached, excitement grew. The importance of the cruise was clear to me, as I was part of a team developing a workshop on creating a cooperative hypoxia monitoring program in the Gulf of Mexico. I had also helped develop NOAA’s pre-cruise annual press release, which outlines the predicted zone size based on model analysis using river discharge and nutrient loading from the Mississippi River. The press release was carried by a whopping 40 news outlets, including national outlets like Time and The Washington Post. These predictions would then be compared to the results of the upcoming survey cruise and distributed in another press release highlighting the measured size of the dead zone found by the cruise (see last year's press release). My bags were packed, tickets were issued, and my email auto-response message was deployed…

…but then the unthinkable happened. Fewer than three days before we were to travel to meet the ship and only a day before the ship was to begin sailing to our port, our ship, the NOAA research vessel Nancy Foster, reported engine trouble.

Over the next 48 hours, CSCOR, the Nancy Foster crew, and LUMCON worked diligently to devise a plan for capturing enough data during the cruise, if the engine trouble could be fixed in time and despite a reduced amount of ship time. A plan was determined and all was back on track, but bad news arrived the next day: the engine trouble was worse than expected. For only the second time in the vessel’s history, the Nancy Foster would not be able to complete a planned research cruise.

The Nancy Foster is NOAA's 187-foot vessel.
Image: Conor Maginn (NOAA)
This was not the end, but just the beginning of a search for a second ship with available ship time to conduct the cruise. There are challenges to a rigid annual intensive sampling effort that must occur at the same time every year and in the same way. It is often not feasible to have a large vessel waiting as a backup in the event of a failure, and finding a vessel and transferring funds with a short lead time is very difficult. The intricacies within the effort necessary to pull this off cannot be overstated. After an exhaustive search, no capable vessels were found to be available or able to change schedules for the full duration of the cruise within the critical mid-summer period during which the cruise is conducted each year. After much deliberation, it was determined that without the ability to cover the entire region at the right time necessary to create a comparable metric to the previous 30 surveys, the survey should be cancelled for this year.

Even the backup-backup plan needs a backup plan. This setback did not prevent CSCOR and LUMCON from quickly pursuing an alternative positive outcome. We would need a good idea, a cruise plan, and funding arrangements all approved and executed within two weeks of the originally planned cruise to meet the end of the fiscal year execution deadlines. Only following an avalanche of emails and careful collaborative efforts by experts at CSCOR/NCCOS, LUMCON, Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO), NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries Program (NMSP), and US Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), was a viable backup plan compiled and executed. Although there is no substitute for measuring and mapping the maximum zone at the same time every year, CSCOR has been furthering efforts that allow for the hypoxic zone to be estimated by models, which provided the opportunity to leverage this capability with a more limited survey cruise. NCCOS was able to find a vessel to monitor two of the long-term transects (below) and is providing funding to the Coastal and Ocean Modeling Testbed (COMT) to complete the modeling exercise.

Long-term transects C and F of the full grid will be monitored in 2016.
Image: Nancy Foster (LUMCON)
These data will allow the modelers to help determine what the size of the zone likely looked like this year. This creative initiative leveraged limited funds by utilizing prior technological investments by NOAA in modeling. It took a strong push and excellent coordination across multiple levels of the organization, all the way to the top of NOAA leadership. It is clear that in a world with limited funding for monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico, models will continue to augment limited monitoring resources. 

Even before this situation arose, CSCOR had been taking steps to build more sustainable and robust monitoring partnerships to avoid unfortunate cases like this one. During my fellowship year, I have been aiding CSCOR in the development of and follow up on a workshop (mentioned above) that invited agency, academic, and industry leaders with interest and expertise in hypoxia monitoring. The workshop was titled “Establishing a Cooperative Hypoxic Zone Monitoring Program.” The output of the workshop will be a report that identifies mechanisms and resources for potential operational commitments to a Gulf Hypoxic Zone monitoring program and steps required for implementation. NOAA has already set aside resources for next year’s cruise, and we are hoping that others will be able to augment current NOAA efforts so that additional spatial and temporal data can be collected to support state-of-the-art models and provide a reliable estimate of the hypoxic zone each year in support of the annual survey cruise.

While the loss of the 2016 cruise is regrettable and attending the long term cruise would have been exciting, I rest assured that I learned more from a research cruise that never sailed than any actual cruise could have taught me.