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Graduate Education: California’s top graduates serve coastal management in State Fellowship

By Deborah Seiler, California Sea Grant

For most students, the first year out of graduate school doesn’t usually bring the chance to manage $30 million in research funds, pass a legislative budget item, or draft new water quality standards for their state. Yet these are just a few of the accomplishments by California Sea Grant State Fellows.                                                     

Modeled after Sea Grant’s successful Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, the State Fellowship matches highly motivated and qualified graduate students with “hosts” in state, federal or municipal agencies for a 12-month paid fellowship.

“This program has been a win-win for California’s coastal agencies and graduates,” said Miho Umezawa, California Sea Grant’s research and fellowship coordinator and a former state fellow with the California Natural Resources Agency. “The hosts know they’ll be choosing from California’s best graduates in ocean science and policy, and our fellows get the chance to gain experience at a high level right off the bat.”

From graduate students to policy leaders

Nick Sadrpour was one of those fellows, a graduate of California State University Monterey Bay placed with the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) in 2015. Sadrpour was tasked with drafting the guidelines and solicitation for OPC’s Proposition 1 Grant Program, which invests $30 million in water quality improvement and habitat restoration projects.

Two state fellows have actually influenced California policy.

In 2012, Fellow Johanna Weston drafted and helped pass new water quality standards for trash in California’s ocean. The amendments defined trash as a distinct pollutant and created a program to control trash pollution statewide. After her yearlong fellowship ended, Weston was hired on as an environmental scientist at her host agency, the State Water Resources Control Board.

Just this summer, Fellow Alicia Amerson helped secure $100,000 in California’s state budget to support a whale emergency response team with fishing gear disentanglement efforts. Through her position in Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s office, Amerson coordinated with legislators, agencies, and NGOs to pass the measure. Amerson’s work was inspired by her master’s degree research on human-whale interactions at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

22 and counting

California Sea Grant’s State Fellowship Program began in 1988, but the program didn’t really take off until an infusion of energy from former Associate Director Shauna Oh, rocketing from three fellows in 2006 to 22 in 2016.

Video: Class of 2016, California Sea Grant State Fellowship

The graduates have worked on hotly contested water policy with California’s Delta Stewardship Council, helped advance aquaculture with NOAA Fisheries and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and assisted coastal resilience programs with the State Coastal Conservancy.

Umezawa said new requests from host agencies for fellows are still coming in, making this California Sea Grant’s fastest growing program. “It’s not unusual for fellows to receive offers to stay on as staff, and some agencies even request two or three fellows,” said Umezawa. “It’s a testament to the work they’re doing.”

More Sea Grant states take up the Knauss vision

Far from being the only state to pair graduate students with ocean policy and marine resource management agencies, California’s program has run concurrently with Oregon Sea Grant’s Legislative Fellowship, initiated in 1989, and Natural Resources Policy Fellowship that began in 1998.

Yet the uptick in demand is influencing a surge of new marine policy fellowships in Sea Grant programs nationwide. Alaska and Wisconsin have each started state fellowship programs within the last year. Wisconsin Sea Grant’s very first policy fellow, Adam Bechle, began work in July with the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program Office in Madison, WI. In Alaska, Associate Director for Research Ginny Eckert said their first class of two state fellows has concluded and three more are slated to begin.

“The interest has been incredible, and well-received on both ends,” said Eckert. “We’re finding that there are many graduates who want marine policy experience, but don’t necessarily want to go to D.C. [for the Knauss Fellowship].”

Coming this fall, Virginia Sea Grant will unveil its inaugural Commonwealth Coastal & Marine Policy Fellowship, and Hawai’i Sea Grant has a program in development.

These programs mean that more graduate students will have the opportunity for a smooth transition from school to the workforce, with big gains for ocean management and policy.

“These early-career professionals provide critical capacity where it’s needed,” says Sarah Kolesar of Oregon Sea Grant. “In meetings all over Oregon, from legislators and natural resource managers alike, we hear about the positive impact of Sea Grant fellows.”


Video: Melissa VIllarreal’s fellowship experience


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