Member Spotlight: Emily Knight

SCB held a Q & A with SCB member Emily Knight, who manages outreach at the Lenfest Ocean Program to learn more about the work she does, what fuels her passion for working in oceanography, what she loves most about the ocean, and more. 

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I manage outreach for the Lenfest Ocean Program, a grantmaking program that funds research projects that address the needs of marine and coastal managers and stakeholders. For my part, once a project is funded, I work with staff, scientists, and other partners to link the science with decision-makers and to communicate progress and results to stakeholders and the interested public.

Prior to joining the Lenfest Ocean Program, I was Program Director with the California Ocean Science Trust, a nonprofit organization that links science with decision-making in California. There, I worked to develop a series of programs and projects to help managers confront the threat of climate change to coastal and marine ecosystems and human communities, from sea-level rise to harmful algal blooms, and ocean acidification and hypoxia. I also worked as the California Science/Policy Coordinator for COMPASS and in legislative policy as staff with the U.S. House of Representatives.

I have a master’s in oceanography from the University of Maine.

When did you know that you wanted to work in conservation and what fuels your passion for working in oceanography?

Ever since I was a child I wanted to be a marine biologist. I honestly had no idea what that meant at the time. All I knew is that I. Loved. The. Beach. I grew up in Baltimore, and like all good Marylanders – in addition to putting Old Bay on everything – each August we went to the Eastern Shore for our week at the beach. I looked forward to that week all year. Just before we would go, I would actually choose a popular song to be that year’s beach week theme. For example, one year I selected “Hold on” by Wilson Phillips. I’m not kidding. And when there, all I did all week was swim. To the point that my mother had pull me out as the sun went down. To the point where I would get saltwater rashes from my bathing suit chafing against my skin, and still I would go back in with aloe rubbed all over it.

That was the ocean to me. And it’s those memories that power my love for oceanography to this day. Being sunburnt. The feel of humid hot air against cool salty water. Sometimes dolphins would come in so close to chase fish the lifeguards would pull us out. Digging for sand crabs then letting them borough back in (sorry, sand crabs). We had a club called the “boogie board club” that was not really a club, rather it was just that my dad rented us some boogie boards from the local tackle shop and my brothers and I decided that made it some kind of official thing. And then every year as the week wound down, I would cry on the last night about having to leave.

How did you end up where you are now? Was your career path clear, or did unforeseen opportunities come about at the right times?

I have to say a major turning point for my career was receiving the John A. Knauss Fellowship in Marine Policy, sponsored by NOAA National Sea Grant. It is the opportunity that opened doors for me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Long before the fellowship, when I was looking for graduate schools, I had become very interested in how society interacts with marine science. That led me to University of Maine’s oceanography program, where I worked with Dr. Les Watling and Cameron McClellan, a commercial groundfisherman, to conduct cooperative fisheries research for my master’s thesis. That experience changed how I thought about science, and the ways it can, and other times can’t, bring people together on a common ground of knowledge and facts.

It made me want to engage more communities in shaping science, and in turn empower communities to solve their problems through science. If knowledge is power, then science has enormous potential to improve our policies and well-being, or at the very least allow us to make more informed tradeoffs. Coming out of graduate school, the Knauss Fellowship allowed me to transition to the policy side (I worked in the U.S. House of Representatives for then Congressman Tom Allen). I then stayed on after the fellowship as staff to the House Natural Resources Committee.

It may seem like a total 180 to go from academia to the Hill. But it’s not, and I want students out there to know this – your scientific training is providing you with core skills that you can utilize in a lot of different contexts. Think about it. Problem-solving (how many times did my sediment grab malfunction at sea????!!!!). Analytical thinking and the ability to synthesize multiple (sometimes conflicting) lines of evidence. Ability to hone in on the root cause(s) of an observation. Willingness to admit… no excitement even… when you’re wrong because there is nothing better than an unexpected finding. Dealing with uncertainty. If you expand beyond the world of academia, you may have to speak other languages and open yourself to totally different contexts and points of view, but scientific training is a wonderful foundation from which to do that.

What are you currently working on (professionally?)

As Outreach Manager for the Lenfest Ocean Program, I work with scientists to connect their research to managers, policymakers, stakeholders, and really anyone that can use the science. Essentially Lenfest is a grantmaking program. We fund science. But what’s special about us is we work with scientists from the idea stage to shape a research project informed by the very folks we think can benefit from it. That can be fisheries managers, the fishing industry, protected resources managers, coastal restoration practitioners, you name it. It depends on the need we’re trying to address.

For too long scientists have thought the end users of their work only become interested when the results are out. Well I’m about to go all cliché and say science is a journey of discovery. If you want more people to share in that discovery we have to be there each step of the way. At Lenfest we incentivize that through our funding decisions. And then when a project is underway, we collaborate with our grantees to structure engagement throughout the life of the project. And it’s amazing what we all learn from that process, let alone the conclusions. Our goal at Lenfest is not only to support new science, but also help scientists build new relationships that that can alter their research programs, and help managers and policymakers overcome roadblocks through relevant new knowledge.

What do you love most about the ocean?

I love that it’s so rich and complicated. Every day you learn something about the ocean that makes you go “say wha???!!!” Like the first time I learned about how cone snails harpoon fish. Or the White Shark Café the Pacific Ocean. Google it. Or the polychaete worms I spent so much of time at University of Maine identifying and counting. They were stunning. I also love how marine species are weirder than anything we could invent. Like I’ll watch a horror movie with some kind of ####### and I’ll think… shrimp are scarier looking. Nice try, humans