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 msgfellowships@umich.edu 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 msgfellowships@umich.edu 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
--> --> --> -->

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.