By Pat Kight, Oregon Sea Grant
For Shelby Walker, a 2002 Knauss Fellowship seemed like a chance to take a break from the lab and consider her future. It wound up being a life-changing experience, one that would put her at the heart of groundbreaking ocean observation efforts and national ocean priority-setting, a key role in the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster - and in 2014, at the helm of Oregon Sea Grant.
The Fellowship, named for former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) head and Sea Grant co-founder John A. Knauss, places highly qualified graduate students for one year with legislative and executive branch offices in the nation's capital. It's an opportunity for bright, promising students to work on critical national issues, observe and support federal policy-making, and, for many, to launch new careers.
Walker was in the Ph.D. program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, writing her dissertation and finishing her lab work on a study of organic contaminants in urban waterways, when she heard about the fellowship from then-current Knauss fellows. After five years immersed in the lab and writing, she says, "I was feeling a little burned out. This seemed like an opportunity to think more broadly about where I wanted to go."
Where she went - after a week of what she recalls as whirlwind interviews with potential hosts - was the National Science Foundation's Division of Ocean Science.
"I figured I'd be able to see behind the curtain of the federal process," she says. "I couldn't have anticipated the variety of things I'd be working on."
Walker's NSF assignment put her on the ground floor, planning for what would become the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS). That assignment also led to assisting with planning for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). She describes those systems as "fundamentally groundbreaking" for transforming oceanography from a ship-based science to one that can be conducted remotely via massive systems of instrumented buoys and cabled undersea observatories.
The Knauss year exposed her not only to the way the NSF and the broader federal system work, but to a network of colleagues and contacts and, just as she was entering her third year as a post-doctoral researcher at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, an invitation to apply for a new position. She did, and found herself managing a 25-agency effort to work with stakeholders and come up with a single document laying out the nation's first-ever national ocean research priorities. Before being named Oregon Sea Grant director this year, Walker also served as strategic planning team leader for the NOAA/OAR Office of Policy, Planning and Evaluation, and associate director of the NOAA RESTORE Act Science Program, part of the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.
She looks back on her Knauss experience as "unbelievably challenging" - and one that taught her valuable things about herself.
"By nature, I'm an introvert. It would be very easy to lock myself in a lab and just do my work. I've taken it as a challenge to put myself in situations where I'm with a lot of different people with lots of different perspectives," she says. "It's been a great opportunity for personal growth."
Opportunities to venture off the safe and familiar path may be the most important lessons offered by programs such as the Knauss Fellowships, Walker adds.
"Everyone gets a chance to consider where they want to go, which agency or office they want to interview with. Don't choose the place where you think you'd be comfortable," she advises. "It’s a year where you can really explore. Challenge yourself. Get outside your comfort zone."
Shared Experiences - Oregon Sea Grant's graduate and undergraduate fellowships and scholarships launch careers and change lives.