As a Knauss Fellow, I am working in Congress, commonly referred to as the Hill, in the U.S. House of Representatives with Congresswoman Doris Matsui. Working for a California Representative means that I am learning a lot about West Coast issues, expanding my knowledge from what I had previously gained in the U.S. Southeast. Congresswoman Matsui is a co-chair for the Congressional Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition and its associated task force on Nature and Oceans. Her leadership roles in these two entities allow me, as her staffer, to help set up and facilitate meetings and briefings with large players in the environmental policy realm to help educate and inform members of Congress on important environmental issues. To date, I have had to opportunity to set up conversations and meet with EPA Administrator Michael Regan, DOI Assistant Secretary Deb Haaland and NOAA Administrator Richard Spinrad. I have also set up briefings with important groups like The Nature Conservancy, The Ocean Conservancy and many others. Having the opportunity to meet with these groups and hear about important issues facing our nation (and world) and gaining a better understanding of how Congress can help with these issues has been an amazing and enlightening experience for me. I am also getting to work on environmental legislative efforts in the areas of natural climate solutions and marine policy.

Chandler Countryman stands in front of the Capitol, where she has attended several meetings over the course of her fellowship. Photo credit: Les Martens.

One of my favorite experiences as a fellow was attending a congressional trip to Yosemite National Park. This was a trip for Congress members and their staff to learn about how climate change is impacting our lands. We learned about increased drought severity, wildfire management, and protection of old growth forests in Yosemite. Hearing directly from National Park staff and getting to see the beautiful sights in person sparked some great conversations about climate change, environmental impacts, and the role of Congress in mitigating these issues.

Working on the Hill is a lot like being on a college campus. The House and Senate buildings, including the Capitol Building and the Library of Congress, are all accessible with my employee badge. There are underground tunnels for traveling between all the buildings, which have restaurants, coffee shops, cafeterias, and even things like barbers, dry cleaning, a gym, and the post office! It is easy to grab lunch or coffee with other Hill staffers, explore the buildings, and take in the grandeur of the beautiful architecture. My favorite perk of being a Hill staffer is having access to the main reading room in the Library of Congress, which I used throughout the year to work on finishing my dissertation! It is a beautiful, peaceful and breathtaking place to work or write.

The great thing about the fellowship is that you have a huge cohort of more than 80 fellows who all moved to D.C. at the same time. As fellows, we have done many social activities together, but also many cool activities, like an upcoming tour of the Naval Telescope Observatory. One of my favorite events is a collaboration between the fellows and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for their “Expert Is In” program, which I recently took part in. For this event, I got to use my background from my Ph.D. research to interact with guests in the museum’s impressive Oceans Exhibit. I got to engage with museum guests of all ages about plankton in the ocean and teach them all about their incredible diversity and importance in the ocean food web.

The Knauss Fellowship has been an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I will carry these experiences and the friendships with me forever.