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Q&A with Knauss Fellowship finalist Celina Harris

CSE grad student will spend a year in D.C. working on marine resource policy

University of Minnesota Ph.D. student Celina Harris didn’t know what would happen when she applied for the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship, but combining science with policy is something she always knew she would do.

The Knauss Fellowship selects highly qualified graduate students from around the United States with an interest in national policy regarding ocean, marine and Great Lakes resources. The 86 finalists, including Harris, will be matched with a “host” office in the United States House of Representatives or Senate in Washington, D.C., or in federal agencies that conduct work that is relevant to the Great Lakes, ocean, and coastal resources. They will start their year-long fellowship in February 2023.

Harris, who plans to defend her thesis this December, received her B.S. in chemistry in 2017 from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. She joined the University of Minnesota Frontiera Research Group in 2017 and switched to the Lee Penn Research Group in 2020. She also attended the 2021 United Nations Convention for Framework on Climate Change Conference in Scotland as a representative of the American Chemical Society. 

In this Q&A, Harris talks about her experience with research and how her interest in policy led to her fellowship application. 

Why are you interested in policy work?
When I first started my undergrad, I didn’t know that I wanted to do policy. I was very much leaning towards teaching because that’s all I’d seen. I got into policy a little more because I’m from the Maryland area originally, and policy is something that everyone is constantly talking about all the time, even in their free time. It kind of works out for me too because I had done multiple years of mock trial in high school. So, it’s nice to be able to merge chemistry and policy into one.

A group photo taken outside by a Goldy M statue.
Lee Penn research group. Photo courtesy of Celina Harris.

You’re a part of the Lee Penn research group. What are you working on?
I work with iron oxide nanoparticles
, which are essentially different forms of rust. Rust is really cool because when you have it in environments where there’s also aqueous iron, it can help facilitate the interaction with aqueous iron and some common pollutant molecules. I work with a class of pollutants called nitroaromatic compounds and they’re common in explosives or pesticides that are really bad for the environment. When they interact with iron oxides, they can basically be converted into other molecules that sometimes aren’t as bad for the environment.

How has being a part of this research group helped you grow?
Throughout grad school, I’ve learned how to be a better self-advocate, advocating for myself and what I want to do. That’s been an experience and a skill I’ve learned regardless of the research group.

Something I’ve really appreciated about my new group and my current advisor, Lee, is they’re really big on encouraging me to go for the things I want to do.

Last summer, they sent me this application and I got the opportunity to be an American Chemical Society delegate at the UN Convention for Framework on Climate Change in Glasgow, Scotland. That really solidified that this was the kind of work I wanted to do.

Why did you apply for the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowship?
I knew I wanted to do something policy, and I was looking around at different options and I picked some that I thought I would qualify for. The Knauss was one that I didn’t think I stood a very good chance at, especially because
a lot of the class are marine scientists and environmental engineers. As a chemist, I’ve never done fieldwork. I’ve never even played with anything aquatic so I was going out on a limb, but it was something that I find really interesting.

I might not know marine science yet, but I’ve already proven to myself that I can switch fields, learn it in a short amount of time and just run with it.

What aspect of this fellowship program are you looking forward to?
Learning. That’s a nerdy answer especially for someone who’s in a Ph.D. program, but I’m really looking forward to learning new things. When you’re in academia, for a while it feels like your only option is to stay in academia and, historically, that’s what you’re trained to do. So it’s going to be a big learning curve. I’m definitely nervous because I don’t know the specifics of my office yet, but I’m looking forward to whatever comes my way, because I know it will be a very cool experience.

What advice do you have for current grad students?
A senior student once told us: “Don’t let grad school be your whole life.” Have hobbies outside of the lab, have friends outside of the lab, have things you do that aren’t research-oriented. The relationships I made over six years in different research groups were the ones I really leaned on when I was switching groups.

Being able to take on leadership roles is really important because as a Ph.D. student, that's what you will do next.

You’re not necessarily going to continue to do the grunt work in a lab, you’re training yourself to become a leader—in industry or academia or wherever you go. So, you should take those opportunities when you can because the next step will involve leadership, regardless of where it is.

Interview by Katelyn Mayne


If you’d like to support students in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, visit our CSE Giving website.

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