by Liang Wu, Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, NOAA Ocean Exploration
The John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship has allowed me to bridge natural and social sciences and policy in ways that I would have never imagined. I wasn’t sure at first if a humanist like me would be qualified as a Knauss fellow. I found the Knauss program - “a unique educational and professional experience to graduate students who have an interest in ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources and in the national policy decisions affecting those resources” - both exciting and intimidating.
As a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the City University of New York who came from the maritime hub of Hong Kong, I was not educated and trained in ocean sciences despite my interdisciplinary research on the international shipping and seafaring industry. Then a Knauss alum told me, “it is people, not fish, who make marine policy, and it is people whom policymakers are trying to influence first.” With the support of the alum, my professors, and New York Sea Grant , I submitted my application and made it through the state and national levels of competition.
I was placed at NOAA Ocean Exploration, a federal agency dedicated to the exploration of the ocean. I have always been fascinated by the deep sea, by the bizarre-looking critters that manage to survive and thrive in the seemingly inhospitable environment, by the chemosynthesis at hydrothermal vents that revolutionized our theorization of the origin of life, and by the stark contrast between our fervent attention to space exploration and egregious lack of knowledge about the deep ocean. The deep sea accounts for over 95 percent of Earth’s living space and is a world of mysteries and wonders. And yet, we know more about outer space than our own planet Earth, more than 70% of which is covered by the ocean.
I was keenly aware though that the field of ocean exploration is very different from my anthropological background. When I first started my Knauss Fellowship in February 2022, I didn’t even know the word “bathymetry” - an important concept when mapping the ocean floor that refers to the measurement of underwater depths and floors of oceans, rivers, and lakes. Working in academia for more than a decade, I was also not very used to office work at the government. But within the first two months of my fellowship, my mentors at NOAA Ocean Exploration had helped me transform from an ethnographer to an explorer on board NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer in April, ready to embark on a deep-sea exploration and mapping voyage through the Caribbean and North Atlantic. I had visited hundreds of container ships and other merchant vessels before, but this was my first exploratory sea voyage. I had always wished to go to sea like that.
Each day, I joined the mission team on board Okeanos Explorer to stand ship watches. I was cleaning multibeam seabed mapping data, sorting deep-sea camera images of the water column for machine-learning annotation , filtering water samples collected by CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) casts for environmental eDNA analysis, and gaining other hands-on experiences of conducting ocean science at sea. At the same time, as one of the few anthropologists who have sailed on board Okeanos Explorer, I was able to tap into my social scientist training and contribute my unique perspective of ship operations by carrying out informal interviews and participant observations, and analyzing the shipboard structure and social dynamics on the ship to generate insights for furthering the office’s science mission.
In May 2022, another dream of mine came true when a colleague and I were sent on a field mission to Alaska to conduct a site visit of a marine archaeology project funded by our office, learn about Indigenous engagement, and inform NOAA Ocean Exploration’s outreach efforts for furthering our social commitment and national mission. Networking and traveling through Alaska, we reinforced existing partnerships and established new connections with various government agencies and academic institutions as well as Alaska Natives. I have always been fascinated by the nature and culture of Alaska as an anthropologist, and this was a perfect way to blend my humanistic commitment with policymaking.
Having worked at seafarer centers in Asia and North America as part of my doctoral project and taught at a college in New York City for five years before working as a Knauss Fellow, I believe in the importance of stakeholder and public engagement and communicating scientific knowledge and project findings to the larger society. At NOAA Ocean Exploration, my work as a science communication fellow across the science and technology and outreach and education divisions allows me to serve as a liaison between policy, science, and society. I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity. In addition to hosting science seminars and a live interaction with Okeanos Explorer, I have been reading and writing public-facing web content for projects supported by NOAA Ocean Exploration’s competitive grants program known as NOFO (Notice of Federal Funding Opportunity). These projects cover a great variety of topics ranging from biomedicine to shipwreck discovery and cutting-edge technology of ocean exploration.
I realized that previously, with my research on the maritime industry, I had been looking at the surfaces of the ocean and its littoral spaces rather than diving deep into the waters. My work at NOAA Ocean Exploration has allowed me to obtain an in-depth understanding of the ocean, including its geography, geology, biology, and chemistry. Inspired by our office’s active participation in the National Strategy for Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization (NOMEC), U.S. Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) Project, Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project, Atlantic Seafloor Partnership for Integrated Research and Exploration (ASPIRE) program, and the EXpanding Pacific Research and Exploration of Submerged Systems (EXPRESS) campaign, I have also taken the initiative of examining the relationship between international law and maritime conventions, national policies and priorities, and ocean exploration, conservation, navigation, and jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, I realized that other Knauss Fellows are also carrying out executive and legislative work that they might not be familiar with previously, even if their host office matched with their scientific discipline. At the same time, many host offices have flexible portfolios that can cater to the particular interests of the Fellows. There are overarching themes such as blue economy, climate change, and social justice that federal offices across the board are increasingly invested in and collaborating on. As graduate students, we have a lot of transferable intellectual skills, technical knowledge, and practical experiences to offer.
Over the past months of my Knauss Fellowship, I have represented NOAA Ocean Exploration at different conferences such as the Ocean Sciences Meeting and Capitol Hill Ocean Week . I have also arranged informational interviews and networked with other federal offices. I learned from these opportunities that the marine policy and ocean science community at large is becoming increasingly aware of their responsibility and role in affecting social well-being. This is why social scientists are especially valuable when it comes to evaluating the practices and social impacts of science policies, devising holistic plans and sustainable solutions, and fulfilling our empirical commitment to recognizing and responding to exigent social, economic, and environmental needs. As Brandon Jones from the National Science Foundation said, “science does not conduct itself, humans do.” Who is conducting science and policymaking matters. It really echoes the comment made by the Knauss alum who supported me to apply for the fellowship in the first place.
Our ocean is inextricably tied to our society, economy, environment, national security, public health, and the future of our planet. I believe it is time for us to bring together interdisciplinary knowledge and cosmopolitan perspectives to tackle the unprecedented challenges facing humanity and leave a positive legacy for future generations. Working as a Knauss Fellow has enabled me to be part of a team making a difference in the world and grow exponentially both professionally and personally. It has both widened and deepened my horizons, and enabled me to become a more well-rounded and versatile person. As the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My interest and passion for the ocean and commitment to serving communities and societies has motivated me to take the first step and put my lifelong maritime passion into practice, venture out of my comfort zone, and embark on this thousand-miles journey from Hong Kong to New York and now as a marine policy fellow in Washington, D.C.
Published October 11, 2022