Natalie Spear (2016 fellowship class)
In 2014, Jack visited Texas A&M University, Galveston and gave a talk about water quality in wetlands and estuaries. He used the latter half of his allotted time to speak about a NOAA Sea Grant fellowship I had not heard of. I felt inspired by his words as much as by his enthusiasm for the fellowship program, of which he was an alumnus. I waited and listened after the lecture as several students asked questions about applications they were feverishly creating in hopes of becoming a Knauss Fellow. I felt excited about the prospect of an opportunity to work at the interface of science and policy, to learn how to turn data into actionable information that could contribute to conservation. Perhaps a year in Washington, DC as a Knauss Fellow would train me to be an alchemist, spinning numbers and figures into policy and legislation that would help improve the health of our ecosystems.
For my 2016 Knauss Fellowship year, I shared a cubicle wall with Jack at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This was one of many manifestations of The Force –a phenomenon that was introduced to my cohort in concept (with little explanation beyond allusions to Star Wars) during our placement week activities– that I experienced during my fellowship. Aspects of the EPA’s work are about walking a fine line that balances human use of the environment with ecological needs, which in turn enables ecosystem use and ensures human health. The fine line had my attention: walls, barriers, and boundaries also have the potential to connect, and I was eager to learn more about this dynamic.
Catalyst: Blue Mind Summit
In May of my fellowship year, I attended the 6th annual Blue Mind Summit where I learned about research and applications of the myriad benefits that healthy aquatic ecosystems offer to humans, aside from their role as integral components fulfilling our basic needs. After the conference, I had a conversation with the meeting organizer, Wallace “J” Nichols about how the body of transdisciplinary research that helps elucidate the neurobiological, psychological, and cognitive benefits of being in, near, and around water might be of service to my EPA host office. In researching and developing the Blue Mind Rx statement with J, the path became more clear.
Through more than 60 focused conversations with EPA staff and leadership, across several offices that are often siloed in effect, I learned about their work, challenges, and successes; the tangible connections and relevance between mental health (as a component of human health) and the mission of EPA’s Office of Water surfaced.
With the support of the Sea Grant program, my host office colleagues, and the research of experts in mental health, neuroscience, psychology, neuroeconomics, and more, I had the opportunity to contribute to the development of a nascent and already meaningful project. The work continues, and I am excited to discover what lies ahead.
The willingness of my host office mentor and our entire branch to support and be part of this exploration has stoked the fire within me to continue working towards the protection of our nation’s waters. I am curious about conversations that exist on paper and traverse time, between policy makers and scientists living and passed, who have woven legislation, policy, and peer-reviewed science into the balance (as it exists today and into the future) between use and stewardship of our water.
My Knauss year has been filled as much with learning about water policy and science as it has been about people. I am touched by the heart, dedication, and expertise of those I’ve had the fortune of working with at the EPA. While I may have left my cubicle at the EPA, I remain connected to the network of dedicated staff who are working to uphold the mission of the agency. I have felt humbled by the accomplishments of my Knaussmates and warmed by the camaraderie and inclusiveness extended to affiliates of the fellowship and beyond. May The Force live on.