From Germany to Alaska to D.C., a Knauss fellow charts a new path through the pandemic

The John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship offers a professional opportunity to graduate students with an interest in national policies that affect ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources. Every year, successful applicants from around the country are matched with hosts in the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government for a one-year paid fellowship in Washington, D.C. 

Alaskan graduate students apply to a national competition with applicants from 34 Sea Grant programs from around the country. Alaska Sea Grant has supported sixteen Knauss fellows, going back to 1991. Many Knauss alumni return to Alaska and go on to successful careers in marine conservation, policy, and research.

Alaska Sea Grant asked our most recent Knauss alumna, Dr. Ann-Christine Zinkann, to share her experience, including how her fellowship helped guide her on a career path that she had not previously considered. Dr. Zinkann earned a PhD in Marine Biology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in May 2020 and was a Knauss fellow from February 2020 to January 2021.

By Dr. Ann-Christine Zinkann

Senator Lisa Murkowski poses with Knauss fellow Ann-Christine Zinkann
Knauss fellow Ann-Christine Zinkann poses with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. Photo courtesy of Ann-Christine Zinkann.

In 2015, I had the opportunity to move to Alaska from my home in Germany to start my PhD at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Planning to follow the route of earning my doctorate and then staying in academia, this felt like the right choice that would bring me one step closer to achieving my goal of becoming a professor. 

Although Alaska was a fantastic place, and I made so many lasting memories, the “academic shoe” did not quite fit. After learning more about the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship Program I decided to apply. I made it through the process, and in October 2019, I traveled to Washington D.C. to interview with various offices. I was placed in the Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing Program (GOMO) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In February 2020, I started my Knauss Fellowship eager to learn and determined to find out whether this felt like my “shoe.” I spent just three weeks in the office before the pandemic resulted in being sent home to work from my apartment for the remainder of my fellowship.

Although the last year was full of lost opportunities, the people that I worked with and the work I was doing made it quite a year! GOMO aims “to provide and support high quality global ocean observations and research to improve our scientific understanding and inform society about the ocean’s role in environmental change.” During my fellowship year, I assisted the International Arctic Policy and Research Committee (IARPC) with meetings and workshops. I worked with the Global Ocean Observing System under the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission on observing networks using various technologies to observe the ocean and improve forecasting capabilities. I was also involved with environmental stewardship and capacity building with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Sciences and Sustainable Development, which is working to expand scientific understanding and build partnerships to achieve “the science we need for the ocean we want.” 

Group photo showing twelve members of NOAA Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing office, including Knauss fellow Ann-Christine Zinkann
Dr. Ann-Christine Zinkann, 8th from left, poses with colleagues from NOAA’s Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing program.

I have made many lasting memories during the fellowship, but there were a few that stood out. I was involved in organizing an Arctic workshop with IARPC, geared towards setting Arctic priorities for federal agencies for the next five years. IARPC develops and implements an Arctic Research Plan, with public solicitation along with input from all federal agencies. It was an opportunity to work with an amazing group of people on developing this workshop and being able to play such an important role as an early career professional was incredible. After the conclusion of the workshop I received an email from Larry Hinzman, Executive Director of the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee and Assistant Director for Polar Sciences, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, and Admiral Gallaudet, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere at NOAA, thanking me for my role and leadership. The recognition of the whole team and me by top leadership showed me that even the smallest role is important and appreciated.

Through my diverse fellowship activities, I was able to learn about meeting facilitation, the workings of NOAA and of international agencies, U.S. interests in ocean observing, current research in areas beyond the poles (where my prior research had focused), and the need for ocean observing and the technologies used to observe the ocean. I gained professional development in negotiations, where I learned a lot about myself in terms of what I am looking for in a job and in a mentor, the way I communicate, and ways to work and communicate with different personalities. Most importantly, I learned to never shy away from an opportunity.

Ann-Christine Zinkann with NOAA colleagues on the steps outside her home, wearing masks and raising arms in celebration of her graduation.
Ann-Christine Zinkann’s NOAA colleagues help her celebrate graduation amidst the pandemic.

Never did I expect to become a Knauss Fellow and be where I am today. I was told right from the start that I should not get my hopes up because I am a foreign national. But the mountain of paperwork associated with updating your status as a foreign national, and the security screenings and background checks were all worth it in the end. 

My fellowship ended in January 2021 and I have since been hired as a contractor with the GOMO office, where I continue to work on UN Decade activities, Atlantic Ocean observing, and program management. I completed my PhD and graduated in May of 2020. I am still working remotely from home, but will be going back to my office in Silver Spring, Maryland, in October of this year. 

Had I not applied to get my PhD at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and then the Knauss fellowship, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I would recommend the fellowship to anyone who is considering it. It allowed me to discover new possibilities, perspectives, and job opportunities.  It has also helped me through this past year of finishing my PhD and working through a pandemic, far from my family in Germany, by giving me a family of co-workers and network of Knauss fellows who supported me throughout. I finally found the shoe that fits.

Who was John Knauss

Learn more about the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship and how Alaskan graduate students can apply.