2/3/11

Eye-Opener: Sea Grant Fellowship Gives Illinois Grad Up-Close Look at Oil Spill

Mike Allen’s interest in biology and nature flourished at a young age as a Boy Scout spending his time camping and exploring the woods of New York state. However, at the time he probably couldn’t have envisioned that his youthful fascination with the environment would lead him to play a role in the United States government’s response to one of the worst environmental crises in decades – the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010.

Allen was in the third month of his Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant fellowship with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) when there was an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, 2010 that killed 11 workers and resulted in oil being pumped in the Gulf for almost three months.

“We won’t know the full effects and the real answers for years,” said Allen, who received his Ph.D. in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2009. “It is very disheartening because the Gulf is already a stressed ecosystem, and (the spill) is one more major kick in the gut. It is going to be interesting to see what happens over the next five to 10 years.”

The National Sea Grant College Program established the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship in 1979. Graduate students accepted into the program travel to the Washington, D.C. area to work on marine policy in legislative and executive offices.

Soon Allen’s office, the Office of Laboratories and Cooperative Institutes, located in Silver Spring, Md., was tasked to put together a group that would coordinate major components of the science and research response to the oil spill disaster.

“NOAA is the lead science agency for oil spills, so all aspects of the enterprise came into play,” Allen said, adding that they worked on researching seafood safety, dispersants, oil properties in the water, and more.

Allen worked with the federal agency’s leadership to track activities in the Gulf; develop and submit science proposals with the laboratories; and secure reimbursement and new funding for completed, ongoing and proposed activities.

While Allen was never sent to the actual site of the spill, he said the experience gave him a new perspective on how the government responds to a crisis of this magnitude.

“We were just one agency among many that had a mandate from Congress to respond to a spill like this,” he said. “Setting up the coordination mechanism across government agencies to make this happen was just incredible to see.”

During his fellowship, Allen also worked as the primary liaison between NOAA’s administrative headquarters and the three “wet labs” – the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, and the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Allen’s yearlong fellowship ran through the end of January 2011, when the program allowed him to transition to a contract position with 2020 Company, LLC, which has placed him in NOAA as a policy analyst.

“(The fellowship) has been an absolutely fabulous experience for me,” he said. “Being here in D.C. and seeing how the agency works and interacts with other agency offices has been very eye-opening for how the government functions and how people get things done.”

He also said the fellowship gave him the opportunity to travel to various offices and laboratories as well as develop valuable contacts.

“I encourage other people in Illinois and Indiana to consider applying for this fellowship because it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience policy in Washington, D.C.,” Allen said. “It will open your eyes to the way government works.”

Applications for the 2012 Knauss fellowships are due by Feb. 18. For more information, go to our Fellowship page.

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