My name is Madison Willert and I have a Ph.D. in biology from Georgia Tech. I entered the 2023 Knauss Fellowship Program through Georgia Sea Grant. My work in the National Sea Grant Office and NOAA’s Marine Debris Program supports the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act activities across both offices to enhance coordination and communication between the teams concerning marine debris-related projects.

My unique position between two NOAA offices affords me a broader perspective of the goings-on at NOAA. I’ve mastered the art of being a chameleon this year, blending into two offices’ cultures, traditions and routines. It has been a valuable opportunity to practice framing and communication skills, as I’ve had to adapt my messaging to twice as many perspectives and people.

The Knauss Fellowship has included many unexpected and exciting opportunities, both in D.C. and (far) beyond. In D.C., there has been no shortage of interesting events to attend: I’ve been to the White House for a briefing by a senior advisor to the President, the Capitol for ocean-themed celebrations, and NOAA headquarters for the annual Sustainable Fish Fry. I’ve traveled to Mystic, Connecticut, Gulfport, Mississippi, and even all over Alaska on a professional development trip, where I sorted marine debris with our project partners.

I’ve learned a lot this year about federal grantmaking. In the National Sea Grant Office, I help to run two award competitions, both focused on marine debris: Our Challenge Competition and our Community Action Coalition Competition. I’ve seen the grantmaking cycle firsthand, and helped with everything from notifying applicants of decisions, setting up regular calls with our twenty-nine awardees, handling data requests from NOAA leadership and Congress, revising our Notice of Funding Opportunity announcements, and organizing a large public symposium for our awardees to present on their projects.

My Ph.D. research was not on marine debris at all! In graduate school, I studied how different anthropogenic stressors, like overfishing and habitat destruction, contribute to the long-term simplification of food webs in coastal marine ecosystems. I spent a lot of time in museum collections, sampling fish that were hundreds of years old for nitrogen stable isotope analysis. I was passionate about my graduate work because I believe that understanding human impacts on the ocean is the first step to mitigating them.

While my current position is a major departure from this type of research, I’m still advancing the broader values that matter to me. Marine debris is a significant issue, affecting the health of marine animals and ecosystems worldwide. It is a privilege to see firsthand the innovative solutions that people are developing around the country to address this issue, and to help facilitate these projects as best I can. I’m excited about the ongoing opportunities to contribute to this important cause, and I’m committed to making the most of my fellowship year to drive positive change in this field.