Monday, November 27, 2017

Surviving Placement Week: A Q&A with Knauss fellow Janet Hsiao

The prestigious John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship 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. It is sponsored by the National Sea Grant College Program and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The program is named in honor of one of Sea Grant’s founders, former NOAA administrator John A. Knauss.

Students are matched with host agencies in Washington, D.C., such as congressional offices, the National Marine Fisheries Service, or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For one year, fellows work on a range of policy and management projects related to ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources.

Michigan Sea Grant is pleased that two candidates from Michigan were selected as finalists for 2018. Janet Hsiao and Lisa Peterson recently participated in Placement Week and have been matched with a host office. Their fellowship year will begin in February 2018.

Lisa Peterson (left) and Janet Hsiao (right) are ready for their first interviews during Placement Week in Washington, D.C.

Here are Janet Hsiao's impressions of the Knauss experience so far:

1. First, tell us a little about yourself.

Placement Week is a unique setting that brings people from all walks of life together. After a fast-paced week of continually meeting new faces, I did hone in on a brief self-introduction: I am originally from California and attended primary school in Taiwan.

Currently, I am nearing the end of my MSc degree at Michigan State University, conducting research on coastal habitats of Maui, Hawaii. My project attempts to contribute to the understanding of the hydrologic linkages between the landscape and nearshore coastal habitats. I characterized inland disturbances in the coastal environment in relation to spatial distribution of coastal ecosystem services, to hopefully inform management strategies for coastal conservation.

Outside of my graduate work, I am a year-round bike commuter and musician. I play the piano, euphonium, and carillon (currently at Beaumont Tower on the MSU campus).

2. Why did you decide to apply for the Knauss Fellowship?

Mentors on my graduate guidance committee encouraged me to apply for the Knauss Fellowship. I thought the fellowship would complement my science background with practical experiences in the federal agency setting. I am committed to pursuing a career in the field of natural resources conservation, and the fellowship offers first-hand opportunities to learn about national policies affecting marine and coastal resources. At the end of the day, I aspire to help people understand that the choices they make as individuals matter and empower them to take responsibility for the changes they want to see in their community. I believe the insights gained from the Knauss Fellowship — working at the interface between science, policy, and the public — would help me get there.

3. Placement Week in Washington D.C. is hectic. You learn about many different opportunities and interview with lots of offices. What is your main takeaway of Placement Week?

To be frank, I have yet to process the whirlwind that is Placement Week. Our days were composed of interviews, followed by daily Evening Events (EE) that served as additional networking opportunities to follow up on interview discussions. So much of Placement Week is contingent upon rapid decisions (e.g., which of the 70 host offices to interview with after 10 hours of back-to-back presentations, how to choose the 3 hosts to call back), with many factors that you cannot plan for (e.g., which offices show up to the EE, how you are literally numerically ranked amongst your amazingly qualified fellow fellows that also choose to meet with the same hosts).

My main takeaways from this week are to do the best in what you have control over (e.g., dress the part, be punctual), don’t expend energy on decisions and circumstances beyond your control, and eat snacks to minimize stomach growls during interviews. Placement Week was an eventful and intense shared experience that surely bonds past, present, and future Knauss fellows — an incredible network that I look forward to being a part of. 

Knauss fellows narrow down their top 16 interview slots at the beginning of a hectic week.

4. Where will you be working when the program starts in February 2018?

My 2018 Knauss Fellowship placement is with the NOAA Climate Program Office based in Silver Spring, Maryland. I am excited to join the Ocean Observing and Monitoring Division (OOMD) to work on the Tropical Pacific Observing System 2020 Project (! Ocean observation systems gather information to understand past and present climate and environmental conditions, and are important for predicting future changes. My main role will be to coordinate and support intra- and interagency activities, as well as develop and deliver materials for leadership, Capitol Hill, and the public.

5. What are you excited about learning or doing?

With my background in aquatic landscape ecology, predominantly in freshwater and coastal systems, I am grateful for this opportunity to learn more about the world’s oceans and how all these systems are interconnected. In the coming year, I am looking forward to joining a supportive team of people that are genuinely invested in my learning. My particular office at the OOMD has given past Knauss fellows the autonomy to shape their fellowship experience and pursue multiple professional development opportunities. Over the course of the year, I will be working at the interface between science, policy, and the public. I hope to gain greater interdisciplinary understanding so that I can identify opportunities to disseminate information to relevant stakeholders, and ways for me to contribute as an individual to be a more effective advocate for sustainable resources management.

Janet works with MSU students to download ocean observation data from NOAA's National Data Buoy Center — a foreshadowing of things to come!

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.