Charting Waves, Forging Bonds: Mentorship in Marine Debris

Posted Mon, 01/29/2024 - 08:27
By: Dr. Madison Willert, 2023 Knauss Fellow and Marine Debris Coordinator in NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and the National Sea Grant Office
headshot of Madison at graduation from Georgia Tech, wearing a cap and gown.
Madison earned her Ph.D. in biology from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2022. Image credit: Madison Willert.

My name is Madison Willert and I’m a 2023 Knauss fellow through Georgia Sea Grant. My work in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program (NOAA MDP) and the National Sea Grant Office 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.

I had the pleasure of working with two incredible mentors this fellowship year – Amy Gohres in the Marine Debris Program, and Joshua Brown in the National Sea Grant Office. The three of us regularly worked as a team, helping to facilitate NOAA’s four collective marine debris competitions and build partnerships between our two offices.

Throughout the year, my mentors consistently empowered me – to follow my interests, take on new projects, and present NOAA’s marine debris investments to leadership. With their kindness and patience, I grew into the best version of myself and gained new confidence in my position. When I’m in a leadership role someday, I hope to help my future mentees blossom the way that I have with them.

Woman smiling and snorkeling in Hawai'i
A Knauss site visit to Hanauma Bay, HI, to learn about Sea Grant’s education efforts in marine conservation. Image credit: Madison Willert.

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

The Knauss Fellowship included many unexpected and exciting opportunities, both in Washington, D.C. and far beyond. In D.C., there was no shortage of interesting events to attend: I went 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 Seafood Celebration. I traveled to Mystic, Connecticut; Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Gulfport, Mississippi; Portland, Oregon; Incheon, Korea; and even all over Alaska, Hawaiʻi, and Guam on professional development trips, where I met with our marine debris project partners.

This year, I helped my two offices better understand the intersections in our funding opportunities and how we can best support each other. I also learned a lot about federal grantmaking. In the National Sea Grant Office, I helped to run two award competitions, both focused on marine debris: the Challenge Competition and the Community Action Coalitions Competition. I witnessed the grantmaking cycle firsthand and helped with everything from notifying applicants of decisions, setting up regular calls with awardees, handling data requests from NOAA leadership and Congress, revising Notice of Funding Opportunity announcements, and organizing a large public symposium for Sea Grant awardees to present on their projects.

Freediver swims underwater towards a school of fish.
Madison was trained as a field ecologist. She still loves getting in the water whenever she can! Image credit: Madison Willert.

My PhD 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 committed to making the most of my fellowship year to drive positive change in this field and I'm excited about the ongoing opportunities to contribute to this important cause.

Dr. Madison Willert is a 2023 Knauss Marine Policy Fellow in the Marine Debris Program and National Sea Grant Office. She came to NOAA from Georgia Tech, where she earned her PhD in biology. Her dissertation focused on using stable isotopes to examine human-mediated shifts in marine food webs, and included a predoctoral research fellowship at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. In her spare time, she loves cooking (and eating), and getting out in nature as much as possible.