Biological Sciences graduate student, W. Kody Muhic, who studied to be a drummer and make it big in Nashville, has made his big break in the sciences as a 2023 John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow. This highly competitive program will allow Muhic and the other 85 finalists from across the nation to work in various executive and legislatives branches in Washington D.C. This year’s class comprise students and recent graduates from 62 universities, including 16 finalists from nine minority-serving institutions. The finalists represent 29 of the 34 National Sea Grant programs and a range of fields, such as biology, chemistry, ecology, engineering, environmental science and management, law, marine and coastal sciences and policy, and several disciplines of oceanography.  Muhic feels prepared for this fellowship and credits ODU faculty and fellow graduate students as the reason why he can march to the beat of his drum in this science fellowship.

Before Muhic considered coming to ODU, he was on the other side of the world doing research in a resident naturalist program in Costa Rica. After graduating with a B.S. in Biology from Belmont University in Nashville, TN, Muhic decided to study more about nature. “In Costa Rica, they've mastered the art of ecotourism where they just bring people in and teach them about nature,” said Muhic. After four months, he decided to move back stateside. Having grown up on the eastern shore of Virginia, “I started applying to graduate schools based on the professors I wanted to work with and who did work in the Chesapeake Bay,” said Muhic. In searching for a university where he could work near the nature where he grew up, he found ODU Professor and Eminent Scholar Daniel Dauer.

After another three months in Costa Rica, Muhic flew back to join a research cruise with Professor and Eminent Scholar Dauer. He dove straight into research and has yet to let up as a master’s student in Biological Sciences. “I focused my individual research on the southern branch of the Elizabeth River where it's super industrialized and there's a lot of military activity,” said Muhic. “There's a legacy of pollution there so it's amazing to see all these new recovery initiatives.” Muhic’s trend analysis data also helped him to better understand the eco-system on the Eastern Shore. He is also a graduate research assistant in the Virginia Chesapeake Bay Monitoring Program and part of the Benthic Ecology Lab. Muhic has broadened his research in ecological work.

Learning and doing research back in Virginia has been meaningful to Muhic. “It's cool to come back and study academically and professionally where I had been so long,” said Muhic. Even though Muhic did not end up in Nashville, he does use his music background in science. “I've always had one foot in science and one foot in the arts for a long time,” said Muhic. His approach to science is less empirical and more abstract. “That layer of thinking is great for science because having a completely different way of thinking that is not only a good way to exercise your brain, but to think abstractly in science when you’re trying to come up with problems and answer them as a group.”  

“That layer of thinking is great for science because having a completely different way of thinking that is not only a good way to exercise your brain, but to think abstractly in science when you’re trying to come up with problems and answer them as a group.”  

Muhic’s research entails gauging the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and this was a steppingstone to applying to the Knauss Fellowship. In 2021, one of his advisors, Lisa Horth encouraged him to present at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and that led to the Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award. “I didn’t know where it would take me because I don't have much experience in policy,” said Muhic. “I have a diverse background in different aspects of science.” As a participant in the Katherine S. McCarter graduate program, he lobbied Congress on the behalf of Ecological Society of America (ESA) and for increased funding for the National Science Foundation. “Being from Virginia in the second district, I had a meeting with Elaine Luria and other Congressional members and staffers about my research experience,” said Muhic. “But seeing how those meetings work and how fast everything is, I actually liked the policy side.” He realized he wanted to keep working on the policy side and applied for the Knauss Fellowship.

As a fellow in the 2023 Knauss Fellowship, Muhic was selected to work in the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) office of ocean and atmospheric research working in congressional affairs. He gets to work in the legislative branch and use his knowledge to make recommendations to law makers.

“I think it will be interesting to be a Knauss fellow because there's law school students, there's Ph.D. students and there's masters’ students like myself, so we will get multiple perspectives on an issue,” said Muhic. “I'm coming from an applied ecology background working to actively research ecology and more of like rather than theoretical research.”

He is grateful for the opportunity to apply his background with the ability to influence science to policy. “He has amassed a wealth of diverse experiences that have inspired him to develop a clear and meaningful goal - to make a difference in melding his love of science and society, into an outreach strategy to communicate his mission - that environmental policy can be understood, accepted, and inspire a dedication of all to restore and protect the Bay he loves,” said Dauer.

OES Professor and Chair, Fred Dobbs, Ph.D., said: “As ODU’s representative to Virginia Sea Grant, I was delighted when National Sea Grant announced Kody as a 2023 Knauss Finalist.  He was an outstanding student in my Aquatic Pollution course (OES 403W/503) in Fall 2020; it was a pleasure to read his well-written final paper and comment on it at a peer level.  His topic, “Legacy Pollution in Elizabeth River Sediments” was so well researched that I urged him to send a copy to scientists at the Elizabeth River Foundation.

“The Knauss Fellowship offers graduate students the invaluable opportunity to put their academic knowledge to practice in tackling marine, coastal, and Great Lakes management and policy challenges at the federal level,” said Jonathan Pennock, Ph.D., National Sea Grant College Program director. “We look forward to welcoming the 2023 class of Knauss fellows and seeing how they will apply their unique insights to developing solutions to some of the most important challenges facing the country.”

Muhic credits several influencers to his success. “All my professors, my advisors, everyone in my lab, and of course my lab, fellow grad students in my lab as well have been instrumental. Professor of Biology Lisa Horth, Ph.D., said, “Kody is a very intelligent and thoughtful individual, and I was proud to mentor him when he was a graduate student. He has a natural talent for writing and a keen interest in policy. He is a fabulous selection as a NOAA Knauss Fellow. This is a wonderful opportunity for him. I believe he will do a great job as a Fellow, and that the experience will impact his career trajectory in the most beneficial of ways."

Muhic shares his thoughts on anyone interested in applying to graduate school at ODU.

“It's a great experience even if you don't become an ecologist, you never know what skills you'll pick up in graduate school and who you'll meet and where it will direct you.  The collaborative nature of research and being able to walk down the hall and see what someone else is working on is great. The professors really work on your behalf even if you're not in their lab because they just want to see like ODU succeed. ODU is a really good school. Here at ODU, graduate school gave me some confidence that I was capable of things. The professors I met and the advisors I had really steered me into where I am now.”