IISG Knauss fellow helps connect ocean science and policy in the House of Representatives

February 28th, 2018 by

Last year, Denise Devotta was selected as a John A. Knauss Fellow, an opportunity for a unique educational experience for students interested in national policy decisions affecting ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources. Representing Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, this University of Illinois graduate student was matched with a host in the Washington, D.C. area for a one-year paid fellowship. Here she reflects on her experiences.

The past year has been an adventure of a lifetime. My placement as a Knauss fellow in Congressman Jared Huffman’s office gave me firsthand experience of the ways in which the U.S. Congress creates and determines science policy. During my time there, I introduced seven pieces of legislation on Congressman Huffman’s behalf, drafted statements and questions for him for 46 Congressional hearings and five times when he spoke on the Floor of the U.S. House of Representatives (more commonly known as ‘the Floor’). I created vote recommendations for him, covering 47 pieces of environmental legislation. I met over 70 individual constituents, delegates from federal and state agencies, and representatives from non-profit organizations (including NOAA, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the World Wildlife Fund) to discuss legislation pertaining to natural resource management in different parts of the country.

Denise Devotta (second from right) with the other 2017 Knauss fellows placed in Congressional offices, on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Of all these incredible experiences, my favorites include staffing Congressman Huffman at Congressional hearings and on the Floor. Because Congressman Huffman is the most powerful Democrat on the Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee, I helped draft his talking points and questions for witnesses at Congressional hearings on key pieces of legislation affecting oceans, fisheries and freshwater management nation-wide. Being Congressman Huffman’s primary staffer during debates on the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act were particularly thrilling. Staffing Congressman Huffman when he discussed legislation on the Floor involved similar responsibilities. The main difference stemmed from the types of points and questions I included in Congressman Huffman’s statement. These were more closely tailored toward issues that other Members of Congress were likely to raise during the debate on the Floor.

Denise Devotta (right) staffing Congressman Huffman on the Floor of the U.S. House of Representatives as he debated legislation concerning pesticide regulation in waterways.

Another highlight during my Knauss Fellowship year was visiting my boss’s beautiful district in Northern California in August 2017. I spent about two weeks travelling from San Francisco in the south to Eureka in the north, and I met with my boss’s constituents along the way to learn more about important natural resource management issues they were facing. Some of these issues included water management in the vineyards of Sonoma County, ocean acidification impacting oyster growing operations at Hog Island Oyster Company and forest fire issues in the Trinity Alps. In addition to this trip, the Knauss Fellowship funded my engagement in other professional development activities, including completing my PhD dissertation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Urbana, Illinois, attending the Ecological Society of America’s Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon, and presenting at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Frostburg, Maryland.

My Fellowship has ended, but I am excited about starting work as a scientist for NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch Program in March 2018. Being a Knauss fellow in Congress has provided me with an invaluable network of contacts in science policy and research, and it has given me a rare skillset valuable to both fields. I am extremely grateful to NOAA’s Sea Grant program for giving me this opportunity, and strongly encourage eligible graduate and professional students to apply for the 2019 Fellowship class.

Placement week a success for new Knauss Fellow Rachel Gentile

December 12th, 2014 by

The two IISG-sponsored Knauss Fellows selected for 2015 recently returned from D.C., where they met with other fellows, interviewed with government agencies and offices, and learned where they spend the next year working on water resource and environmental issues. Rachel Gentile, who is completing a PhD in Biological Sciences at Notre Dame, shares her experiences.

My placement is in the office of Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA-47). I will be assisting with his marine policy portfolio and will also be directing the House Safe Climate Caucus. This means I will be managing the activities of the caucus and assisting with floor speeches, op-eds, and short videos to promote climate change awareness in the House of Representatives. I applied to the Knauss Sea Grant Fellowship because I wanted to assist with discussions concerning marine and climate issues on Capitol Hill, so this placement in Rep. Lowenthal’s office is a dream come true!
Placement week was a whirlwind of excitement for me. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the other finalists, Knauss alumni, and the legislative hosts. I also learned a lot about the legislative process and my future role as a Knauss Fellow.
At the beginning of the week, we attended a series of lectures facilitated by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Library of Congress. We learned how politics, policy, and procedure come together inside the walls of congress to pass—and fail—bills. We were introduced to CRS subject librarians and research specialists in marine, climate, and energy policy who will be incredibly helpful to us as we research these issues and write memos, talking points, floor speeches, and legislation.
Most of the week was spent in interviews with the host offices. I interviewed in 17 different offices over three days. I loved hearing about the work each office was doing. Many hosts talked about fisheries, marine national monuments, climate change adaptation, water and drought issues, and ocean acidification. There are many marine policy issues currently being addressed in congress, and as a Knauss Fellow, I will assist my host office with them.
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