Coastal Institute Assistant Director Reflects on Knauss Fellowship

It is one thing to know how a bill becomes a law. It is quite another to see your own bill become law for the United States.

That was the experience Nicole Rohr, currently the assistant director and assistant research professor of the University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute, had as a NOAA Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow in 2011 working in Congress under Sen. Roger Wicker, R–Miss.

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2011 Knauss Fellow, Nicole Rohr and Sen. Roger Wicker, R–Miss

Rohr, who was nominated as a Knauss Fellow by Rhode Island Sea Grant near the completion of her Ph.D. in biology at URI, recalls her Knauss Fellowship as an invaluable introduction to the world of environmental decision-making at a federal level. “The legislative experience is a demanding one,” she says. “I did everything from preparing my boss for committee hearings to attending meetings with him, to drafting legislation and providing research and guidance on votes.”

She remembers the transition from graduate school to Congress as being a culture shock. “I knew logically what to expect. I knew the tasks I would need to complete, but I was not prepared for the fast pace, high demands, or serious implications of the work.” She laughs, “It’s so different from graduate school, which is a self-driven pace that allows for a lot of flexibility in your schedule. It was very different to then move to Washington, D.C. It is the fastest-paced environment I have ever worked in, and I was responsible for knowing a wide range of interdisciplinary topics down to the small details.” As her fellowship got underway though, she quickly learned to adapt.  “It was a steep learning curve, and unlike many other fellows, I had the benefit of interdisciplinary training received through the Coastal Institute’s NSF-funded IGERT Program to bolster my skill set. Fortunately, there were many people there to help me along the way.”

A highlight of Rohr’s fellowship was seeing her work have a real effect on environmental policy. “A bill I wrote, a small bill that helped facilitate a land exchange between a coastal community and a federal agency, was passed into law.  It helped the people of Mississippi and was also beneficial for the federal agency, and it would not have been possible without legislation to facilitate the process.”

Her position had its perks, too.  “A unique aspect of the fellowship outside of the traditional work is being offered opportunities to attend special events.” She remembers attending an event at the Museum of Natural History in D.C. “The senator couldn’t attend, so he generously gave me his ticket … the museum was closed at the time, so you could walk around and see the exhibits without the typical large crowds. For an ecologist, it was a non-work highlight of the fellowship.”

Rohr considers her time as a Knauss Fellow to have been an important stepping-stone in her career. “I learned skills as a Knauss Fellow that I would have never learned anywhere else. I also gained first-hand insight to how our government works.” She went on to work as a legislative assistant for several more years for Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., where she worked on environmental issues from the Farm Bill to working with the White House to designate two national monuments in California.

Now back at URI, Rohr applies her interdisciplinary training and experiences to her work with academia, state agencies, and other organizations on environmental monitoring, climate change, and coastal resilience. She says that she is grateful both for the opportunities that she got through the fellowship and for the people she met – in Washington and later through the Knauss alumni network. For that reason, she has advice for graduate students: “I encourage students interested in marine policy or regulations to apply for the fellowship even if they do not envision themselves in Washington, D.C., for their career. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and has made me more effective at interacting with policymakers and decision-makers and has opened doors to opportunities I would not have otherwise had.”

 

Every year, each Sea Grant state office selects outstanding graduate students to compete nationally for the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship. The Knauss Fellowship, named for one of Sea Grant’s founders, provides awardees with a unique educational and professional experience to work with policy makers in Washington, D.C., and gain an inside view of policy decisions affecting our nation’s oceans, coastal areas, and Great Lakes.

 

 

Keegan Glennon | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications Intern