U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Directorate Fellowship Program
The New World of Virtual Internships
How Alaska’s 2020 Directorate Fellows adapted and succeeded during a global pandemic
The Directorate Fellowship Program functions like the apprenticeships of past eras: a period of extended training that leads to secure employment. That’s especially the case in the conservation sphere, where the need for talented, diverse staff has never been greater.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partners with multiple conservation organizations to identify and recruit approximately 100 participants annually for a rigorous, 11-week experience. Fellows are paired with supervisors and pursue projects that dovetail their interests and expertise with the Service’s needs.
The Fellows must be enrolled in an undergraduate program or graduate school, and must have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher. They’re provided housing, living and travel allowances, and participate in a week-long orientation course at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, before they’re dispatched to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service duty stations across the country.
The Directorate Fellows Program differs in a critical way from other conservation internships: on completion of both the program and degree requirements, Fellows become eligible for two years of Direct Hire Authority, which allows the Service to fast track them into permanent, full-time positions.
“It’s an incredible opportunity,” observes Daniel Rinella, a Fish and Wildlife Alaska fisheries biologist who is serving as a supervisor for the 2020 cohort. “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service positions are particularly sought after. There’s a lot of competition for each job offering, and the hiring process can be long and difficult. But the Direct Hire Authority is just that — it allows managers to bring someone directly onboard. It’s a streamlined route to a career with the agency.”
USFWS is hosting eight Alaska Fellows this year, working on projects that include wetlands inventory, tundra bird breeding research, compilation of a customs guide on Native handicrafts, assessing and analyzing fisheries resource monitoring programs, preparing for the roll-out of a national “Fish 150” campaign in 2020, connecting Arctic stakeholders online, and fostering data stewardship and education in Alaska. While they’re focused on Alaska issues, all are teleworking, including from other states.
“Bradley Nissen, the Fellow I’m supervising, is working on sampling methods for juvenile salmon on the Deshka River, a tributary of Alaska’s Susitna River that historically has been very productive for salmon,” says Dan. “We’re interested in water temperature and stream flow as mechanisms of climate change, and the ways they could be affecting the young fish. The research centers on 80 sites along the river where we capture juvenile fish and then compile and analyze the data. I have a heavy workload, and I’ve only been able to devote a limited amount of time to the project. But Bradley has a tremendous skill set, and he’s made fantastic progress in just a few weeks. He’s been a great asset to the Service.”
Bradley is one of those peripatetic conservation biologists who have spent years bouncing from one internship and temporary appointment to another. Specializing in amphibians, he has studied imperiled frogs in Panama, Thailand, Florida and Wyoming, rare salamanders in Texas, and most recently, hellbender salamanders — the largest salamander in the United States — in Tennessee.
“I’ve been working toward a career in wildlife biology for a long time, and I’ve always viewed the Fish and Wildlife Service as the gold standard,” Bradley says, “so I was really excited when I got a Directorate Fellowship. Virtually all my work has been in aquatic salamanders rather than fish, but many of the same research protocols apply, and I’ve had no difficulties carrying out this project. The work underway on the Deshka is fascinating — and important.”
In fact, says Bradley, he’s considering expanding his professional purview to fisheries or wildlife refuge management.
“One of the great things about this program is the degree and depth of the mentoring,” he says. “You meet a lot of talented people who give you extremely useful advice, including on career options. This program is really broadening my scope.”
Directorate Fellow Lindsey Daml grew up in North Pole, where — like most Alaska residents — she enjoyed a wide variety of outdoor pursuits. Currently an undergraduate studying natural resources at the University of Minnesota Crookston, she belatedly heard about the Directorate Fellows Program from a retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife Inspector in Anchorage who was an associate of one of her professors.
“I submitted my application one week before the deadline, but I got an interview and was accepted,” Lindsey says. “So now I’m working with Chris Andrews [the Supervisory Wildlife Inspector in Anchorage, Alaska] updating a customs guide to Native handicrafts. The work involves a lot of outreach to get local perspectives on issues that are both complicated and sensitive, and I’m using the feedback to make the guide more accessible and user-friendly.”
Directorate Fellow Keith Ivy, a member of Alaska’s Yupik community who’s from Bethel but grew up in various Alaska communities, will graduate in December from the University of Alaska Anchorage with a biology degree. He learned about the program through the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP).
“My project is centered on fisheries resource monitoring,” Keith says. “Basically, I’m identifying information gaps and needs for Alaska’s regional advisory councils so they can take an interdisciplinary approach to sustainable fisheries management. It’s an extremely important project to me personally, because fish are central to my community from both the subsistence and cultural perspectives. My family participates in subsistence fishing, and I’m motivated to do anything I can to help the resource.”
There’s a major difference in the 2020 cohort compared to past years: the Fellows aren’t in the field. The COVID-19 pandemic has dictated virtual research, so everyone is working remotely.
“I’d love to be up in Alaska,” says Janine Siatkowski, who is working from the little Klamath River hamlet of Happy Camp in northern California, compiling Alaskan geospatial data sets for a national wetland inventory. “But things are as they are, so everyone’s making the best of it. The good thing is that we have the necessary digital technology to make it all work. I can network, screen-share, receive and transmit all the necessary data as needed, so the pandemic isn’t really affecting the project.”
Janine’s career to date has focused on teaching in underserved communities.
“Originally, my DFP work was supposed to be an educational outreach effort to rural communities on invasive species,” she says, “but the wetland inventory was a more pressing need, and I’m immensely grateful to work on it. It’s really deepening my technical knowledge, and I feel I’m doing something substantive and important for Alaska.”
Janine will receive her Master’s degree in natural resource management from the University of Idaho in May, and hopes to use the Directorate Fellows Program Direct Hire Authority to secure a permanent position with the agency.
“It’s a real chance to actually make a career in conservation — to make the world a better place,” she says.
That sentiment is widely shared with her colleagues.
“I’m definitely hoping to take a permanent position,” says Directorate Fellow Mason Wheatley, a geography and environmental studies major at the University of Colorado who is creating a communications and social media plan for Arctic Youth Ambassadors, an initiative that helps young Arctic residents serve as advocates for their regions. “The DFP is a special program, a unique program. There’s really nothing quite like it. It doesn’t just prepare you for a career — it actually provides a path to a career.”
Story by Glen Martin, freelance writer/former San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter. Compiled by Katrina Liebich and Kristopher Pacheco.
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