Above: Gina Digiantonio on the left with leadership from the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force visit Biscayne National Park.

New Opportunities: A Knauss fellow’s professional development experience

By VASG Knauss Fellow Gina Digiantonio 

Gina Digiantonio is a Virginia Sea Grant Knauss Fellow in the executive branch. She graduated from Drake University with a bachelor’s in biology in 2014, and recently graduated from the University of Virginia with a master’s in environmental sciences. Before embarking on her fellowship, Gina was excited to engage with opportunities to work on pressing coastal issues, hoping to draw connections between scientific research, marine policies, and end users. 

I received three key pieces of advice about the Knauss fellowship. First, keep an open mind, second don’t be afraid to try something new, and third; network, network, network.

Placement week provided a slew of information about the marine policy world, and from the host office presentations alone I was overwhelmed by the breadth of possibilities the fellowship offered. I reminded myself to try something new, and as a result quickly transitioned from being a seagrass biologist to an ocean policy and communications specialist at the Department of the Interior (DOI) Office of Policy Analysis.

Any identity crisis I may have had about this evolution was minimized by how intriguing the people and activities in my host office are. This placement allows me to see the diversity of ocean, Great Lakes, and coastal activities in the DOI’s bureaus—such as the National Park Service, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Office of Insular Affairs, and others. I am involved with the coordination and communication of these activities across bureaus and other agencies.

So far, I have attended National Ocean Policy meetings and ocean hearings on the Hill, participated in the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force working groups, and prepared social media posts. I’ve also written articles, and served as an editor for the Spring 2017 issue of NEWSWAVE, the DOI’s cross-bureau newsletter on ocean, Great Lakes, and coastal activities.

Above: The 2017 Knauss class heard from panelists (seated at the front) about the DOI’s ocean, Great Lakes, and coastal role during DOI Day for Knauss Fellows.

Most recently, I attended the 38th U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I helped brief our DOI co-chair on the meeting, and listened to the needs and successes of on-the-ground DOI employees during visits to Biscayne National Park and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. It was heartbreaking to see the impact of Florida’s coral disease outbreak on SCUBA dive and snorkeling trips, but heartening to hear of the restoration and management efforts of passionate federal, state, and local leaders during the Task Force workshops and business meeting.

Amidst these eye-opening experiences, I didn’t want to lose sight of the third piece of advice. In July I organized a 2017 DOI Day for Knauss Fellows. This event gave our fellowship class a chance to interact with various professionals from the DOI’s ‘blue portfolio.’ I moderated a panel with representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, U.S. Geological Survey, and National Park Service, and the fellows participated in a Q&A session about career advice, job opportunities, and the challenges of communicating the DOI’s diverse ocean role to the public.

Reflecting on the past six months, I can honestly say my time as a fellow has given me opportunities beyond what I ever imagined. The Knauss fellowship has diversified my professional skillset, and as I continue the fellowship and pursue future endeavors, I will keep what I have learned in focus—embrace change, grow professionally, and engage in new experiences.

“… I will keep what I have learned in focus—embrace change, grow professionally, and engage in new experiences.”

Gina Digiantonio snorkels among seagrass and corals during a site visit to Biscayne National Park.

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