You Can’t Plan for a Change of Plans
By: Cheyenne Stienbarger,
Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing Program
Before we begin, there is something you must know about me. I like organization and need to have a plan, whether it’s a plan for the trip to the grocery store, for the year, or for the next five years. I live to plan.
Spoiler alert: you just can’t plan for some things.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t somewhat stumble upon the Knauss Fellowship on the North Carolina Sea Grant website two weeks prior to the opening of the application period. I discovered the program at a critical point in my graduate career where I was uncertain as to what my next steps would be. My decision to pursue the fellowship was not a frivolous one, but it also wasn’t part of my original plan.
Like I said, I’m a planner. Let me explain why the plan changed to a new plan and then again to a new one.
As an undergraduate student pursuing a dual degree in Biology and Environmental Science from Evangel University in Missouri, my original plan was to graduate, obtain an M.S. and Ph.D., conduct some really important research and (eventually) teach at a university. I knew from a young age that I wanted to study science and my reasoning was simple: I felt a deep connection to nature and animals, and I wanted to be able to make a positive impact on the planet.
After a two-week marine biology field course in the Florida Keys, offered through my undergraduate university, I found a field that really spoke to me. During those four years of undergraduate school, I sought out every single opportunity that I thought would bring me closer to achieving a career in marine biology, despite living in the landlocked Midwest. These pursuits included:
Serving as a caretaker for our department animals (Did your department not have snakes, turtles, and flying squirrels?)
Volunteering as a zookeeper intern at Dickerson Park Zoo and an aquarist intern at Wonders of Wildlife
Getting SCUBA certified in a quarry in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Missouri
Snorkeling in the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary in the Florida Keys
Following my graduation from Evangel, I was offered a temporary yet once-in-a-lifetime position at Wonders of Wildlife. You know when you visit an exhibit at a zoo or aquarium and read all about the animal’s habitat, diet, conservation status, and fun facts? Well, Wonders of Wildlife was a brand new aquarium that needed a person to research and write that type of information for every animal on exhibit, and that person was me! For six months I wrote species profiles by day and researched grad schools by night; it wasn’t part of the original plan but it worked.
I chose to attend the University of North Carolina - Wilmington (UNCW) to obtain a master’s degree in marine biology. The project I worked on allowed me to align my interests in working with animals and having a positive impact on the environment. My thesis research was the result of a collaborative NOAA Marine Debris Program grant that focused on assessing the consequences of microplastic ingestion across multiple life stages of the Black sea bass. Black sea bass are commercially and recreationally valuable along the East Coast, particularly in the state of North Carolina. I also became involved with a local nonprofit (Plastic Ocean Project) that works to address the global plastic pollution problem by educating through research and outreach.
Read more on microplastics from this review paper that I co-authored.
Like many grad students, I spent many days (and many nights) in the lab, worrying about the survival of my fish and the success of the experiments. I was proud of what we were accomplishing and, even though it was stressful, we were making progress and doing work that no one had ever done before! That progress and excitement came to a halt when Hurricane Florence directly hit Wilmington, NC in September 2018. Unfortunately, many homes and businesses were destroyed, and several lives were lost because of the storm. Hurricane Florence also destroyed UNCW’s Biology & Chemistry building, causing millions of dollars in damage and ruining hundreds of irreplaceable samples (some of mine included). Facing a destructive hurricane in my first year of graduate school was certainly not part of the plan, but we all adapted and kept moving forward.
Taking the time off from the lab during the aftermath of Hurricane Florence afforded me the time to think about what I really wanted for my career. Regardless of the fact that I was working on a project that was deeply important to me, I could not shake the feeling of unfulfillment. I found greater satisfaction in managing projects, planning experiments, and wrangling undergraduate students than I did in actually running the experiments and spending time in the lab. It became clear to me that I had no interest in pursuing a Ph.D. or conducting research, but I also wasn’t sure what my next steps would look like following the completion of my master’s degree.
A successful beach cleanup at Wrightsville Beach, NC
Now back to the two weeks before the Knauss application period opened. New plan!
I wanted the work I was doing to have a more direct impact on the environment and on society, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. The more I read about the Knauss Fellowship from former and current fellows, the more I believed that this would be a transformative experience, allowing me to step out of the laboratory and into the field of marine policy, where I consider my abilities to be better suited.
One of the many benefits of the Knauss Fellowship is that you have the opportunity to work on something completely different from anything you’ve done before - which is exactly what I did! For my fellowship year, I have been placed in the Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing Program (GOMO) within NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. My office supports over 50% of the world’s ocean observations, which are necessary for “climate and weather prediction models and helping us understand our changing ocean and its impact on the environment.”
As a Knauss Fellow, my portfolio is comprised of the following projects:
Supporting the transition of the international TPOS 2020 Project (Tropical Pacific Observing System) through regular engagement with several NOAA labs and offices
Leading the development of a cross-NOAA workshop to help organize ocean observing approaches to improved analysis and prediction of extreme events (i.e., hurricanes)
Assessing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global ocean observing system
Saildrone (an autonomous sailing drone) working to improve the Tropical Pacific Observing System (Source: NOAA PMEL)
The Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing Program - along with countless others across NOAA - provides invaluable information and products that directly serve our nation. While I no longer work with elephants or octopuses or sea bass, I do get to interact with remarkable scientists and program managers across NOAA every single day. I traded in my waders for a blazer to work for an organization that utilizes my strengths and fulfills my desire to make a positive impact.
My plans changed and I am so grateful that they did. My path to the Knauss Fellowship was not linear and several of my experiences were not part of my plan.
To all of my fellow planners out there, know that your aspirations and plans will likely change and that is okay. There is certainly no shame in a winding journey because you will learn and discover much along the way.