Knauss Fellowship: LSU PhD Candidate Explores Environmental Policy on a National Scale

February 16, 2024

Ashley Booth posing with U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

Ashley Booth with U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

LSU PhD candidate Ashley Booth, who grew up in the mountains of South Carolina and Georgia, says her grandmother often spoke fondly of her experiences living near the Mississippi River and Louisiana swamps.

So when Booth felt the urge to study and work in the environmental space, she was naturally drawn to the Bayou State, where she eventually landed a PhD assistantship studying coastal wetlands at LSU's School of Renewable Natural Resources in the College of Agriculture.

This past year, Booth's academic journey took her to the highest levels of the federal government, where she recently completed a NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship working in the office of U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

Booth offered her thoughts about the Knauss Fellowship and how it meshed well with her personal drive as a scientist to help find answers to complex problems — like coastal wetland loss.

"This experience provided an unparalleled opportunity to expand my expertise in communicating science to inform action on individual, state, federal, and international scales," she said.

Tell us a little about your background and how you came to study wetland ecology in the School of Renewable Natural Resources. 

I grew up playing outside in the mountains of South Carolina and Georgia, and though I grew up hearing my grandmother's stories about growing up along the Mississippi River and playing in the Louisiana swamps, I didn't start out wanting to study coastal wetlands.

My first degrees were in Veterinary Technology and Animal and Veterinary Science, and I worked in the veterinary field for five years before deciding I wanted to work in the environmental space. In part because of the stories I heard about Louisiana while I growing up, I chose to attend Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, where I earned a Masters degree in Marine and Environmental Biology.

During this time, the faculty at Nicholls invested time introducing students to the places, people, history, and environmental challenges that make Louisiana such a unique and magical place. This experience and my time working on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Wetland Condition Assessment (NWCA) program for the state of Louisiana ingrained an appreciation for Louisiana's diverse wetland ecosystems and a commitment to making sure those wetlands are around for future generations to enjoy.

When an PhD assistantship studying coastal wetlands at LSU became available, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to work in ecosystems I felt deeply connected to.

Why did you apply for this fellowship? What were you hoping to accomplish? 

I heard about the fellowship through one of my best friends who participated in 2018.

Working as a coastal wetlands researcher in Louisiana for the past several years, I saw first hand the disconnect between scientists and non-scientists. Scientists do a great job of finding answers to important questions, but are rarely as skilled at communicating those answers to the people responsible for identifying and applying those answers in the "real world."

Seeing this gap in communication inspired me to minor in mass communication while at LSU because I wanted to develop the expertise and skills to effectively communicate science and help translate raw science into action.

As I progressed in my career and expanded my communications work, I developed an interest in understanding how science is translated into action at the federal level. I specifically chose the Knauss Fellowship because it is an unparalleled opportunity to see behind the scenes of how marine and coastal science informs federal policy; to learn how to communicate science to high-level policymakers in Congress and federal agencies; and to step directly into positions that are highly competitive and often only open to individuals with an educational background in political science.

My goal for the fellowship was to work in a Congressional office to get a deeper understanding of how the federal legislative process works, how science informs policy, and how I can most effectively use my career to build strategic partnerships and drive collaborative priorities for coastal and community resilience forward.

What responsibilities did you have in your fellowship work? 

In my position as a Legislative Fellow, I supported the senator in his legislative and policy efforts related to oceans, water, coastal resilience, and the environment.

This work involved writing legislation, providing edits and amendments to existing bills, briefing the senator on environmental issues, staffing the senator at hearings and meetings, and forming collaborative partnerships with Congressional offices, federal agencies, and community stakeholders to address emerging issues.

Some of my accomplishments this year included working with Hawaii-based organizations to develop over $150 million in appropriations requests for the fiscal year 2024 federal budget, working with federal agencies to develop the Hawaii Congressional delegation's requests for the 2024 Water Resources Development Act, helping prep the senator for a trip to Dubai for the U.N. climate change conference COP28, and crafting legislation related to weather modeling, carbon storage, and sustainable aquaculture.

What did you enjoy most about the work? 

My favorite part of the work was learning more about Hawaii and developing collaborative, creative relationships to push the needle forward on complex environmental issues.

My personal drive as a scientist has always been about helping people find the answers to complex problems — like coastal wetland loss — and implement those answers to alleviate those problems.

— Ashley Booth

Like Louisiana, Hawaii has a rich, complicated history and its people hold a deep sense of responsibility for the environment and a desire for community-driven management. This year was an incredible opportunity for me to listen to those perspectives and incorporate the things I learned into my advocacy and policy work.

I also enjoyed learning more about how to build strategic partnerships and work collaboratively on controversial and complicated issues. In a state where the safety and resilience of densely-populated coastal communities are tightly linked with the health of the environment, the sheer number of stakeholders and perspectives can be daunting for finding solutions to problems like drinking water shortages or coastal erosion.

My supervisors during the fellowship served as great examples of how to identify underlying needs, find common ground, and continue to push for meaningful change that addresses those community needs. Participating in this process was among the most meaningful and enjoyable parts of my work.

How did the experience support the work/research you're doing at LSU? 

My personal drive as a scientist has always been about helping people find the answers to complex problems — like coastal wetland loss — and implement those answers to alleviate those problems. This experience provided an unparalleled opportunity to expand my expertise in communicating science to inform action on individual, state, federal, and international scales.

Working in a Congressional office exposed me to a wide range of environmental and political issues, both benign and highly controversial. By learning to navigate those spaces while advancing my office’s goals, I developed soft and technical skills that expanded my ability to address complex, landscape-scale environmental issues.

These skills and the relationships I formed during the fellowship directly support the research I am doing at LSU by creating avenues for connecting with and addressing the needs of coastal wetland managers.

Ultimately, the fellowship also supported my work by confirming a passion for building collaborative, strategic partnerships to address environmental issues and a commitment to community-driven management of shared resources.

What was the biggest takeaway from your experience? 

For me, the biggest takeaway was the importance of relationships.

The people of Hawaii, like the people of Louisiana, have a deeply intertwined relationship with their environment and culture. This underlying focus on relationships in my office led me to spend much of my fellowship year investing in connections with groups in the state of Hawaii to learn about and identify ways to meet community needs, with other Congressional offices to create and advance common, bipartisan goals, and with federal agency employees to improve implementation of federal laws or initiatives. 

Forming meaningful personal and professional relationships made me better able to identify and address community-driven needs. These relationships and the things we accomplished together were an incredible example of how we can all accomplish so much more, of how our lives are so much richer when we invest in our relationships and operate in connection with each other and the world around us.

Why would you recommend this fellowship, or other similar opportunities, to other LSU students? 

The Knauss Fellowship is a great opportunity to get paid experience in marine and coastal policy at the highest levels of the federal government.

This prestigious fellowship is also an excellent opportunity to build a professional network with high level policymakers and makes it easier for fellows to get jobs in federal agencies (through a Direct Hire Authority) following the fellowship. Because it is only a year long, the fellowship is also the perfect to explore new career directions or areas of interest.