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Introduced by her friends as “the ocean person,” Katherine Ball has spent much of her life near the water. When she was 10 years old, her grandmother gave her “Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion,” a book about oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer and his marine debris study. It was then that Ball knew she wanted a career related to ocean studies.
“I get so excited about the ocean,” said Ball, a Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology PhD student at Arizona State University's School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “Everyone knows that if they can't think of a present to buy me, find something cool and ocean-related. My favorite animals are squids and octopuses.”
Ball’s passion for the ocean is now taking her to Washington, D.C. She has been named a finalist for the 2021 class of the Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship program.
The fellowship places graduate students in federal government offices in Washington, where they will learn about and help shape national policy decisions affecting ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources. The fellowship is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Sea Grant College Program, which works to create a healthy coastal environment and economy, and bring science and communities together to conserve coastal resources.
“I’m looking forward to networking and learning more about how the government works and operates,” Ball said. “I want to pursue a government position after I earn my doctorate, so this allows me to test the waters.”
Working in policy wasn’t always Ball’s goal. When she started her bachelor’s degree in oceanography, she intended to study marine debris and plastics. But she didn’t want a career that would have her sitting behind a computer all day. She wanted to be more involved in conducting research and getting communities engaged, so she steered her studies to policy.
“I started getting into citizen science,” Ball said. “How do we engage people with scientific issues through the use of technology, participation and research? How can communities make changes at the local scale? How can people concerned about their beaches get their local government to pass policy that helps them?”
For someone interested in ocean studies, Arizona may seem like an unusual choice. But when Ball participated in the ASU Citizen Science Maker Summit in 2016, she knew that ASU was where she wanted to study policy further.
“I was drawn to the (school's) attitude toward communities,” Ball said. “Communities are valuable; we need their input.”
Her research has focused on community empowerment. During her undergrad, she designed a prototype sensor that members of the public could use to study microplastics in the ocean. And for her master’s thesis, she developed a board game to educate people about helium. Both projects are still being used and impacting communities.
Ball is currently working as a graduate research associate and also developing her second-year research project. She is looking at how federal agencies perceive, value and govern Alaska’s oceans and whether there is a disconnect between agencies based in Washington, D.C., and their regional offices in Alaska.
“Someone from Washington, D.C., who has never been to Alaska, will most likely understand the relationship between place and native cultures differently than someone who lives there and knows the place personally.”
Ball wants to improve public participation in marine policy and find ways for communities to be better engaged with government.
“I want to interact with people and understand how projects will impact them. I want to bring their voices into decision making.”
Ball will learn her placement for the Knauss fellowship this October, and her fellowship will begin in February.