By Jessamin Straub
Jessamin Straub is a current NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Fellow with the Army Corp of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). She is an alumna of the Marine Sciences Department at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she was a Coastal Resilience Center Science and Engineering Workforce Development Grant recipient and received a certificate in Natural Hazards Resilience through the CRC.
I first learned about the NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship Program during my Junior year of high school in an Oceanography course. After hearing about such an interesting program, I tried to learn as much as possible about this program through my educational and professional career. Luckily, the Knauss Fellowship program has an extensive alumni base who I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with and learning from during my career. After years of learning about the fellowship, I was ecstatic to finally have the chance to apply and get accepted to be a Knauss Fellow while a graduate student in the Marine Sciences Program at UNC-Chapel Hill.
I was thrilled to find out my host office would be the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), where I would be working on a wide range of Civil Works R&D projects. Within the first few weeks of starting my fellowship position, based in Washington, D.C., my supervisors, mentor and I met to discuss my professional development plan. My plan included numerous opportunities to travel to domestic and international conferences, Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) district offices and national meetings, with the goal of networking and learning all about different aspects of the agency. A large component of the Knauss Fellowship is professional development, networking and travel, and fellows have the opportunity to travel to some pretty amazing places. I was excited about all of the fascinating opportunities through my fellowship host office and couldn’t wait to learn more, network and travel!
Unfortunately, parts of that did not go according to plan.
During the third week of my fellowship, in the last week of February, I had the opportunity to travel to the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) located in Vicksburg, Miss., to learn all about the fascinating research and work going on and to meet with fellow colleagues.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity on my visit to attend a Coastal Engineering course where I learned all about dredging and navigation, beach nourishment and coastal structures. Additionally, I participated in a meeting to develop collaboration between ERDC and Boston College on Geophysical Computational Modeling. The trip to Vicksburg was a great opportunity for me to network and learn about research projects at ERDC.
I returned from my trip to Mississippi on a Friday evening, and then the following Monday morning I left for Corvallis, Ore., to go to the Coastal Engineering Research Board (CERB) Executive Session, which began on March 3, 2020. The theme of the Executive CERB meeting was “Northwest Pacific Coast Processes and Coastal Resilience,” with the intent to identify strategic coastal research priorities for the Pacific Northwest and the nation. The meeting was structured to provide the Board a status update on previous action items and CERB initiatives; discuss local Corps Navigation, Coastal Storm Risk Management (CSRM), and Ecosystem challenges in the Pacific Northwest; and learn about Oregon State University’s (OSU) ongoing coastal research, facilities and opportunities to expand partnerships. I had the fortunate opportunity to meet some of the brightest and top researchers in their fields, learn about complex engineering challenges, and take a field trip to the Oregon coast to see some of the challenges firsthand.
As I was returning home from the wonderful trip to the West Coast, I learned about the widespread impacts of COVID-19. Since I had traveled to Oregon, I decided to quarantine for 14 days. After four months of being at home, I still haven’t returned to my office in Washington, D.C.
With travel halted and interaction with others minimized, I quickly realized that my fellowship year was going to be very different than I had anticipated and planned for. My host office and the National Sea Grant office have been extremely supportive in finding innovative ways for me to get the best out of my fellowship, given the constraints of COVID-19. From supporting me presenting at virtual conferences, such as the recent Natural Hazards Workshop, to setting up virtual informational interviews, I’ve learned how important it is to adapt to challenging circumstances.
A timely and fascinating project I’ve been tasked with is being the lead of an interagency report on how the Marine Transportation System can be more resilient in the face of multi-hazard environments (hurricanes, pandemics, etc.). This report is for the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System’s (CMTS) Resilience Integrated Action Team (RIAT), as a follow-up to a 2017 report on “Recommendations for a Resilience Path Forward for the Marine Transportation System.”
Additionally, I’ve taken this virtual opportunity to refine skills such as ArcGIS and science communication. I am applying these new skills working with the U.S. Coastal Research Program (USCRP) on developing an ArcGIS story map to communicate and highlight the important and relevant research projects to address societal needs along the coast.
COVID-19 has posed new challenges for Knauss Fellows and has forced us to think creatively on how to make the best of our fellowship year. Although the pandemic presents numerous difficulties, I’ve learned how important it is to focus on what I can control and what I can accomplish, given the circumstances. While my Knauss Fellowship year is a different experience than I planned for, I still believe that this fellowship is one of the best experiences I’ve had, and will benefit me throughout my career.