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Confluence: Knauss Fellow
by Rhett Register
Rhett Register, a former Oregon Sea Grant intern and graduate of OSU's Marine Resource Management program now working and writing in Washington, D.C., sat down recently for a question-and-answer interview with Jennifer Dresler, our 2012 Knauss Fellow. A recent graduate of the OSU Environmental Science program, Dresler has spent the last 10 months in Washington, D.C., as a 2012 Knauss Fellow. The one-year paid fellowship sponsored by the National Sea Grant College Program pairs graduate students and recent graduates interested in working in marine affairs with hosts in the legislative and executive branches of U.S. federal government. The program began in 1979 and is named after John A. Knauss, one of Sea Grant's founders. Dresler began in January in the office of U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), where she works on a wide variety of topics including fisheries, port infrastructure, FEMA and national parks issues.
How did you get placed in Senator Wicker's office?
Placement week is in November. Fifty-some people come to Washington that have been picked from all over the country. There are about 10 legislative fellows and forty or so executive fellows. The legislative fellows, that was the group I was in, interviewed with over a dozen offices on the Hill. We got to take legislative processes courses. We networked every night. When you get your placement, the hope is that it matches your skill set and personality.
What are you learning?
The legislative process, which is so complicated. I'm learning how a bill becomes a law, normal procedure on the floor, how to draft wording for a bill. There are a lot of little things to learn.
Can you run us through one of your days?
I draft lots of memos. I interact with constituents in the state. I recently had the opportunity during one of the commerce committee mark ups--Senator Wicker is on commerce committee--to help draft amendments. that were later included in the bill. I've also had the opportunity to draft talking points for speeches for the senator on Department of the Interior issues as well as for some energy-related speeches.
When you say you interact with constituents what does that mean? Have you gone to Mississippi?
Yes, I went in May and will be going back again in November. When I went in May I got to visit a lot of folks on the coast. I went out with Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (MDMR). We visited a lot of the ports. We work on a lot of port infrastructure issues--which is something really interesting that I didn't know I would be doing--we also do a lot of Army Corps issues. I visited Grand Bay National Estuarine marine reserve. I spoke with the director there and got to see our federal dollars at work. I went to NOAA's National Data Buoy Center, the Stennis Space Center, and the Northern Gulf Institute. It was really interesting. MDMR took us out to see some shrimpers on the water. It was the opening day of shrimp season. It was pretty neat. I also work on Department of the Interior issues so I do a lot of forest service, national parks, and FEMA so with Hurricane Isaac we were doing a lot of calls back and forth with the state.
What was it like to be in the office when that disaster happened?
Really interesting. I was able to hear first hand from FEMA and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) about response in the state and region.
You mentioned a lot of other areas besides "marine" that you work in. Has this experience broadened your policy interests?
I like having the broad environment portfolio. I've learned a lot about energy policy and infrastructure as well as Army Corps issues I never knew anything about like dams and levees.
What did your science background help you bring to this experience?
It's helped me understand fisheries concerns and science related questions as well as the needs of universities in the state.
Were there any specific classes at OSU that have been particularly useful in this fellowship?
I took coastal law--actually a UO class--that has been really helpful. I used to be the graduate writing assistant at the writing center on campus and just having writing skills at all has been really helpful. Dr. Bob Lackey's class on policy made us look at both sides of an issue objectively--that's been really useful.
How do you like Washington, D.C.?
I like it. It is fast-paced city just about the opposite of the West Coast. There is a lot to see. I've been to a lot of pretty receptions and events. My boss, Senator Wicker, recently participated in "Will on the Hill" where congressmen and congresswomen perform a play at the Shakespeare Theater. It was hilarious. I've done a lot of the free events. Tonight I am going to the Navy Yard free music event. I haven't been there but I live really close.
How much contact do you have with the senator?
I have the opportunity to staff with him in meetings in my issue areas. I staff alongside a legislative assistant and support him in our issue areas. I see the senator in other meetings during the week with just staff. What I didn't understand fully until I came up here was how busy every congressional member's schedule is. I do feel like I've gotten to interact with him quite a bit since I've been here.
So you are part of a team?
The legislative assistant that I work with is the point person on all of these issues. So it's been a year of learning a lot from him and how you address these issues. How you communicate them best to constituents, to the senator, to agencies in the state or to anybody who needs the information. All members of the office are part of one team. If we are working on an issue that crosses several portfolios, everyone involved will discuss.
What are the issue areas that you work on?
NOAA--oceans and fisheries, science--NSF and NIST, environment, some pieces of the energy portfolio, Forest Service, national parks-- Department of the Interior and US Fish and Wildlife, FEMA and Army Corps.
Has the work that you did with your advisor, Dr. Gil Sylvia, been applicable to this experience?
Yes. With Gil I worked on communicating regulations and fishing information to recreational fishermen. Now I work with a lot of recreational charter captains. My work with Gil has helped me identify with that constituent group. It also has given me the tools that I need to communicate better.
Could you explain your master's project a little further?
It involved communicating regulations to marine recreational fishermen. I really looked at communications of the future. So fishermen are collecting information on the water, how do you validate it? What kind of incentives do you set up so that the information that would then be transferred to the agency is correct? As budgets get lower--I think about this all the time up here too--as budgets keep decreasing, programs are cut and how do you get the data that is so needed to manage fisheries in the United States? My project looked at how you obtain that information from the recreational fishing community and the incentives that you provide. It's interesting because Gil works with a lot of people in the Gulf. I'd be in meetings and they would be talking about something that I worked on or something very similar and I would say, "Do you know Gil Sylvia?" And they would say, "oh yeah he designed our Gulf Wild program that we all use."
Would you recommend the fellowship?
It has been a really good learning experience. It's really busy at the beginning because appropriations are in spring so you have a lot of meetings. So it is a little bit of a jolt into how life is here which is busy but exciting. I would definitely recommend it. I learned a lot and I feel that it is a really good stepping-stone to any job in policy. You get to network with lots of people. I've learned a lot about Gulf marine and environmental issues that are really interesting.
Any advice to future applicants?
Watch the news. Read the paper. Make sure you are up to date and well informed. Don't limit yourself to just thinking about ocean policy because some of the other issues--US Fish and Wildlife, USDA, things that are really interesting--you get to think about legislatively. I'm glad that I have so many issues that I get to think about.
Did you learn anything about the application process that you'd like to share with future applicants?
There are so many aspects of the application process. I think it is about your writing abilities as much as it is about the recommendation letters that you get. And the breadth of your public presentations and your professional experience. They take a lot of factors into consideration. For those that are considering it I would say make sure you are well rounded - get to know your Sea Grant because they will be your best advocates.
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