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The Lost Geographer: Following the road signs to Knauss

Published on Friday, October 2, 2020

The Lost Geographer: Following the road signs to Knauss

By: Michelle Harris,
Knauss Fellow,
Science and Technology Fellow,
U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Program Office


There’s a common joke that geographers “know where it’s at” - but for this geographer, a sense of direction is not something I’m inherently adept at. No matter how much I plan and prepare, there is always an unexpected turn (or two or three) somewhere along the way to be laughed about later. When comparing this to my life trajectory, I like to say that I’ve always had a roadmap, yet the “yield,” “go,” and “detour” signs have manifested as wisdom from mentors, advisors, and supervisors that has led me to the greatest moments of growth and success. It is because of these fateful turns that this “lost geographer” ended up becoming a Knauss fellow. 


While I found my niche in geography during college, my passion for marine life began as a toddler. If gills could be bought, I would have acquired a pair over the summers I spent dragging a bucket and net chasing Sargassum Anglers as a child. The connection to science came later, as I navigated the landscape of science education, biology, and geology at Sam Houston State University. My time in undergrad was what some referred to as “systematic chaos.” I prioritized my full-time off-campus job, taught undergraduate labs and threw the remainder of my energy into my limited time in the classroom. The delicate balance was tricky, but I flourished under the guidance of the faculty members who encouraged my coastal lens in each course.


During my senior year, I was supported for a field study course where I traveled to Kailua-Kona, HI and spoke on sustainable fisheries. Unbeknownst to me, my scientific foundation was being planted and nurtured.  It was then that my mentor presented me with my first “yield sign”: slow down, identify goals and apply to graduate school. This opportunity was not one that I had envisioned targeting. Further, I certainly never imagined leaving the state or breaking loose from my roots in Texas. Looking back on that decision now, I am certainly glad she did not let me pump the breaks!


Presenting on the sustainability of the marine aquarium fishery trade at the Kona Science Cafe (left), followed by snorkeling at the Captain Hook Monument in Kona, HI (right).


The lanes changed when I entered graduate school at the University of South Carolina and became part of the Wind-Induced Nearshore Dynamics Lab (WINDlab). My research transitioned from lionfish and sustainability to coastal geomorphology, natural hazards and sediment transport. My scientific canvas became one of sand, fire ants, “bloodthirsty coyotes immune to OFF” (mosquitoes) and storm chasing. Our most recent work includes a longitudinal study on Isle of Palms, SC, that assesses tropical cyclone impacts to beach-dune dynamics, and my thesis focused on the impact of sand fences to dunes post-hurricane.


So, how did I transition from the dunes to topics like hurricane gliders and coastal modeling as a Knauss fellow at the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Program Office? You guessed it, a green light!


Collecting post-hurricane topographic data for the beach-dune system on Isle of Palms, SC. Dr. Jean Ellis (left) and Michelle Harris (right).

When I first applied to graduate school, my advisor asked what my plans were for after my M.S. degree. At the time, I admitted I was unsure; my running life checklist ended at that uncertainty. If you were to look at my notes from that meeting, though, you would see a reference to federal government experience and the Knauss Fellowship. When I was nearing the end of my M.S. degree and preparing to continue into a Ph.D., the topic surfaced again. Did I want to continue in academia, or steer for a federal or private sector career after? I’d acquired research experience but had limited knowledge of the latter. In preparing my application for Knauss, I’ll admit that at first I was a bit apprehensive about the timeline. I knew that fellows typically applied at the end of their degree rather than the start, and taking a year-long hiatus near the beginning of my Ph.D. was intimidating. However, I was lucky in that my advisor (a Knauss alum), encouraged me to take the untraditional route to gain new experience. 


Through the next few months and whirlwinds, I learned that I was selected for the fellowship. During the first semester of my Ph.D., I traveled to D.C. for Placement Week. When the time came to select a host office, I followed the road signs to my current position, a slight ‘detour’ from my typical fields of research. Was it daunting to select a position where I was a bit out of my wheelhouse? Certainly. But I also came to recognize what a unique and fantastic opportunity the fellowship presented, considered the skills and experiences I could gain from the position, and allowed myself to “feel the force” during Placement Week. For once, I put the checklist down, stopped planning, and followed the path until the roadmap came into focus. 


Today, I work as a Science and Technology Fellow under the Director and Deputy for the IOOS Program Office. Unique in its construct, my office is comprised of national-regional partnerships with 11 Regional Associations (RAs). Funded through cooperative agreements, RAs address stakeholder needs and fill critical gaps for observations and forecasting. Regional data portals provide public data for near and real-time measurements on topics such as harmful algal blooms, animal telemetry, High Frequency Radar for surface currents, and underwater gliders. 


Within the first few weeks of my fellowship, I traveled to Ocean Sciences 2020 in San Diego, CA. I was able to assist with an RCN Meeting that was a follow-up on Ocean Obs ‘19. I also got to view a site test for an observing platform!


I would describe my position as a mixture of handling both programmatic responsibilities and interagency collaborations, tailored to my interests and portfolio. Some of my main tasks include working alongside the Department of Energy on the Ocean Observing Prize, completing Regional Information Coordination Entity certification verifications for the RAs in accordance with the ICOOS Act, and assisting with a series of regional workshops to enhance collaboration between IOOS and NOAA Research in response to a Senate Appropriations Report. Working within the office has allowed me to interact with RA directors, their respective staff, PIs and local stakeholders on data needs at various spatial and temporal scales. Further, I have learned how funding within the program is allocated through the proper channels to our partners. The connections I’ve made with federal employees, researchers, and regional stakeholders have been invaluable. When I return to my Ph.D. program in the spring, I know I will bring with me considerations for the implications of top-down and bottom-up research, and how the relationship between science and policy can be bridged for stakeholder needs.


Now that I am just over half-way through my fellowship, I have to say the roadmap has come into view. I have come to learn that it is not the destination that is of most importance but the journey itself. Further, there is value in recognizing our mentors and their ‘signs’ along the way, even if they lead you down an unexpected path. No matter what field you’re in or your timeline, I encourage you to take a detour or two. Who knows, it may be the best part of your roadmap to success!


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