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From professional development plans to interpersonal skills, how the Knauss Fellowship offers unexpected and lifelong lessons

By: Kaitlyn Lowder,
2020 Knauss Fellow,
Program Analyst,
NOAA Research’s Office of International Activities


As a marine biologist, I enjoyed watching the spiny lobsters in my care tackle bits of chopped seafood dropped into their tanks and counting the number of appendages on minute larvae in the lab. But, as an ocean acidification researcher, it was frustrating knowing my research results and their implications would go only so far. So, when the Fellowship Coordinator at California Sea Grant asked why I was interested in being a Knauss fellow during my interview, I had a confident answer ready: in the short term, I wanted to gain more experience in policy-oriented writing, but on a large scale, I aimed to one day influence how impactful scientific results are employed broadly. I was eager to develop a better understanding of how research needs and results make their way back and forth between leadership and researchers within NOAA.


Now, as a Knauss fellow from California Sea Grant who just finished up her fellowship year in NOAA Research’s Office of International Activities, I can confidently say I had the opportunity to gain the experience that I envisioned and more. Yet, reflecting on this past year, there is an aspect to this fellowship that I had not expected but now cannot imagine advancing my career without: a wealth of professional development experiences that are simply not prioritized in academia. 


The first week in my office, I sat down across a desk from my mentor as unfamiliar words came my way (not unusual for the first few weeks of the fellowship), specifically “individual development plan” (IDP) and “work plan.” As a fellow who went straight from undergrad to graduate school to a postdoc to the Knauss Fellowship, formal documents that described the scope of my responsibilities and laid out tangible professional development goals went beyond what I had operated with previously. As tough as it was to eke out the first draft of my IDP, it’s still a document that I revisit today and plan to continually do so throughout my career.


Expanding professional competencies did not just come from the excellent support of my host office. Thanks to the teleworking status we all operated under for the bulk of this year’s fellowship, I used my fellowship professional development funds to take online courses in leadership, facilitation, and project management that set me on entirely different paths of learning. No longer was I just thinking about the scientific aspects of adding a new sensor onto a mooring array across the globe, but I was consciously recognizing how the strong leaders throughout NOAA gathered support for their programs, watching as colleagues talked of gap analyses and strategized for events sometimes years in advance. 


This year, my training allowed me to not only think about developing skills for the future but also critically evaluate my past approaches. My mentor and I had long discussions about recognizing and working with different personalities, giving me a chance to think about a number of situations I might have handled differently in graduate school. For example, I would awkwardly correct the methods of my talented-yet-new undergraduate volunteers, sometimes being so indirect that they didn’t realize I was asking them to adjust their approach. Now, with some additional training under my belt, I have both the tools and confidence to address a range of situations in a direct manner, ensuring not only the work but also the interpersonal relationships benefit. 


Among the benchwork or field skills developed in graduate school, I know many students find lessons in resilience, collaboration, and experiment (read: project) management. Yet, looking around at our generation of early career ocean professionals, eager to advance our field, I see opportunities for those continuing along the academic track to benefit from professional training that will surely serve them well as they lead labs, are awarded increasingly-large grants, and encounter colleagues with a variety of personalities. This past year demonstrated to me that the Knauss Fellowship is one excellent avenue to gain that knowledge, among the more-expected experiences in the marine policy realm. However, it is just the beginning. As my mentor reminded me during one of our last meetings, the competencies I was introduced to this year are like sword blades: they can always benefit from being sharpened. So, to the future classes of Knauss fellows: what are some of the skills you want to start honing in your fellowship year?


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