By Katie Mosher, North Carolina Sea Grant
As a special assistant to President Barack Obama, Jessica Maher must focus on the big picture of the nation’s environment, as well as specific legislative language on myriad topics.
“I am the primary White House liaison to about 20 Senate offices, and the primary person for four committees in the United States Senate,” explains Maher, who has lead roles in tracking updates for the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
The schedule of 15-hour days is obviously long, but she is doing what she loves. In 2004, she participated in the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, offered by the National Sea Grant College Program. Her fellowship was with U.S. Rep. Sam Farr of California.
“I truly believe the opportunity that I was given as a Knauss Fellow has led to the fact that I have been in D.C. for 10 years. My job in Sam Farr’s office gave me the launching pad for my career that ultimately led to the White House,” Maher says. “Finding positions on Capitol Hill is very competitive. I know Ph.D.s who want to work on The Hill and they are answering phones,” she explains.
“Listening to Jess share her Knauss experience and current duties confirms the key role that this fellowship plays in developing leaders in environmental and policy fields,” Susan White, North Carolina Sea Grant executive director, notes. “I was exhausted on Jess’ behalf given her current schedule.”
Maher has held the special assistant title for three years. In 2013, she was among the inaugural class of 24 people from across government chosen for the President’s Leadership Workshop.
She also spent nearly three years as associate director for legislative affairs for the Council on Environmental Quality, also at the White House. She had handled energy, environment and conservation policy for two United States Senators — Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — before moving to the White House immediately following the 2009 inauguration.
She had applied for the Knauss fellowship while completing a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University. The U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point funded her graduate research to study how bottlenose dolphins use waters within bombing ranges in the Pamlico Sound. A native of Lawrence, Kansas, Maher also has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she earned a Senior Medallion Leadership Award.
The following interview has been condensed and edited.
What led you to your career choice?
When I was a freshman at the University of Kansas, I took a large lecture class. I think it was Introduction to Environmental Studies. We were assigned a paper and I decided that, after having read some timely news articles, I wanted to learn more about bioaccumulation of chemicals in marine mammals. So began a focus on marine mammals, or more specifically, a focus on considering the effects of certain human activities on marine mammals. That would carry me to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington — and four years of field research on the local bottlenose dolphin population — and eventually to Duke.
During my first year at Duke, I received a Doris Duke Conservation Fellowship that supported my interest in spending the following summer in Washington, D.C., learning firsthand about the policy process on Capitol Hill. I worked for the House Natural Resources Committee. From that experience, I knew that I loved the legislative side of policy. Thus, when I initially received news for my Knauss placement, I was pleased — and it obviously worked well.
Please share a highlight or an accomplishment from your time as a fellow.
It was a great time to be on Capitol Hill to focus on ocean topics. The Pew Oceans Commission report came out in 2003. The U.S. Ocean Commission report came out in 2004, while I was a fellow. Congressman Farr, who cares so deeply about oceans issues, wanted to transform the recommendations of these reports into legislation, and that’s what I spent the bulk of my time doing. These efforts culminated in a bipartisan bill being introduced. And, I have to note, one of my proudest moments during my Knauss year was what happened after Congressman Farr introduced the bill: Both The Washington Post and The New York Times ran editorials supporting it.
I was so lucky in my fellowship placement, as I was able to work so closely with the recognized leader on oceans issues in Congress. I could speak on his behalf and people knew he was someone who cared deeply and was ready to get to work for change.
How do you apply the experience and skills you gained as a Knauss fellow to your current position and overall career?
It is not one particular skill. Rather, it’s the combination of all of the skills I initially learned during my Knauss year. For example: How do you get along with people with whom you have nothing in common? How do you interact with folks you have never met before? How do you put together coalitions? How do you put together a successful and long-term strategy? These are examples of some of the skills that I first learned in my Knauss fellowship. I also learned to write brief, yet precise, background memos, a make-or-break skill in the policy realm.
Why would you recommend that others apply for this fellowship?
To begin with, I am nearly certain they will have the time of their lives! Beyond that, there are a lot of decisions that get made every day in executive branch agencies and on Capitol Hill, and knowledge is power. It’s really important for students to understand the policymaking process — not just what is in the books about how policy is made — so they can help be a part of crafting solutions.
It will benefit society as a whole if more scientists from schools in every state in the nation are speaking out regarding how the results of their research can be applied. Otherwise, it’s pretty likely that the same old lines will be maintained.
An example is the recent Toledo, Ohio, water-quality issues. I often see efforts to undermine the Clean Water Act, but when whole communities are faced with the unthinkable — no potable water — we’d all like to think that leaders will start to pay attention and make some connections. And, when local scientists can help explain, then I believe there’s a real chance for progress. So, yes, I am optimistic about the future as more and more scientists, in towns all across the country, talk about any number of environmental or public health or energy issues.
This article was published in the Holiday 2014 issue of Coastwatch.