Thursday, March 30, 2017

Advice from the first American woman to walk in space: Reflections from Ellen Spooner

Ellen Spooner with Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, who served as the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from March 2014 through January 2017.

The first American woman to walk in space — appointed as the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from March 2014 through January 2017 — addressed us, the 2016 Knauss Fellows, at our end-of-the-year pinning ceremony. As we closed out our fellowship and began the next chapter of our careers, she shared interesting stories from her past and imparted some of her wisdom. Along with the typical but always reassuring graduation advice of accepting the failures and successes in life as part of the winding path to reach our professional goals, Dr. Kathy Sullivan gave some notable guidance. 

As one of the first female astronauts in NASA, Dr. Sullivan spoke about the leadership there and how they taught her a great deal about how she wants — and doesn’t want — to lead others. She said that with every boss we have, we should take note of what we like and don’t like about their leadership style, write it down, and use that to reflect upon how we will lead others. With my experience at NOAA, I was lucky enough to add a fair amount to the list of leadership skills I want to emulate. NOAA leadership was able to keep that fine balance of getting work done while keeping the mood in the office light and upbeat. To be fair, though, it is hard to not be excited about your work when your job is to protect adorable seals and other amazing marine life.

The funny thing about being an astronaut is that the job market is pretty small without a lot of options outside NASA. So when she decided to leave, she found a way to dissect the duties she had as an astronaut into skills that were translatable to other jobs. The ability to translate your specific skills and experience in one job to another is an invaluable ability that will get you far. As a trained scientist moving into the professional world of communication and education, I really resonated with this advice.

Then Dr. Sullivan gave an example of how a scientific background prepares you to be a good leader. While she was a professor at Ohio State University, she noticed a difference in the students who studied other subjects compared to those who studied science. Students would come into her office hours to discuss their grade on a paper, and she would ask them to defend why they made the argument they did in the paper. She often found that non-science majors based their arguments on rationalized beliefs, while science majors provided facts as evidence to support their conclusions. Perhaps a background in science provides the skills needed to dissect an issue, analyze the information at hand, and make a decision based on evidence, which is what successful leaders do.

At the end of Dr. Sullivan’s speech, each Knauss fellow had the opportunity to stand up and share some of our most memorable moments from the fellowship. When it came to my turn, there were so many moments I could have mentioned, from discussing the importance of ocean literacy in schools with leaders from all across the world, to providing low-income students with access to science education and highlighting a path to science careers. But I decided to take the opportunity to thank my fellow fellows, because my most memorable moments during the fellowship were those late-night discussions over (possibly a few too many) beers, debating the current issues of our government, the environment, and particularly the ocean. Penny Pritzker, the former Secretary of Commerce, once said that “the people you surround yourself with are the key to long-term success,” and I felt truly blessed to have been surrounded by such bright and talented people for the past year.

After we each shared our moments, we got a photo-op with Dr. Kathy Sullivan herself. I was so excited to meet her that I was the first one in line to get my photo taken. Dr. Sullivan waved to me and said, “Come on over, Ellen.” That was the perfect ending to an amazing year: the Administrator of NOAA herself had remembered my name.

So in the end, no matter where you came from and where you are going, learn to dissect what you have done into skills that can translate into different jobs and you will reach the stars.

Ellen and Dr. Sullivan mark the occasion with a handshake.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Choosing the Right Path: Trevor Meckley Looks Back

Trevor Meckley with Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, who served as the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from March 2014 through January 2017.
The Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship provided me the exact experience it advertised: a “unique educational and professional experience for postgraduate students.” But I didn’t necessarily follow the exact mantra repeated to fellows during the Knauss placement week. During placement week, fellows are matched up with host offices through a weeklong process that culminates in a draft, where offices rank fellows and fellows get the opportunity to choose their office in the order that they appear on the ranked lists. Surprisingly, this professional ocean science nerd draft receives far fewer tailgaters than either the NFL or NBA drafts. Maybe the 9 a.m. start time was the problem.

However, the important Knaussian twist on those better-known drafts is that draftees still get to pick their placement position based on the order each office ranked them. In other words, a fellow could end up selecting an office that ranked them lower, if other fellows above them selected a different position. During placement week, one of the two most common pieces of advice were to “go in a new direction and step outside of your comfort zone.” I had a slightly different and perhaps more boring approach to finding my host office. My four priorities for selecting a fellowship position were:
  1. A position that I would enjoy and might want in a career.
  2. A position focused on the nexus between science and how management communities use the science.
  3. A position with an office that had a track record for hiring successful Knauss Fellows or supporting contractors.
  4. A fellowship with a group of colleagues that seemed like a group I would be happy working with, allowing me to experience the office dynamic for a year. 
Much of this perspective came from being a recent graduate student with a first child on the way, longing for a sure future and the beginning of a career. I wanted to set myself up for a position that might work out long-term.

The year ended as I wanted it to end. I work for CSS, a professional and technical services provider that contracts employees to many federal offices, including my host office, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) at NOAA. This means I work in my host office managing projects for the Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise Program (EESLR). EESLR provides a suite of science products to inform coastal managers of local coastal vulnerability and solutions to mitigate flood risk on our coastline. Projects principally explore the vulnerability of natural coastal ecosystems (e.g., salt marsh, mangroves) to evaluate the potential for natural structures (e.g., barrier islands, wetlands, etc.) to reduce coastal inundation. Projects also aim to develop best practices for the inclusion of ecosystems in coastal protection strategies. I get to manage projects that complete high-level science leading directly to tools that can be used by decision makers. I am not conducting the science; my role is ensuring that ongoing funded research leads to products that are valuable. This begins during the strategic writing of the competitive funding opportunities and careful selection of the best proposals. This is a position at the nexus of science and the management communities using the science, with a great group of colleagues, that I could be happy in for the long term.

The funny thing about my year in which I took a more careful approach than advised to finding a position — even though it worked — is that I no longer feel the same pressure for finding a position. The Knauss placement week, combined with the effort of job-searching during the fellowship, has distilled useful knowledge about job-searching and building relationships.

One of the most valuable perspectives I gained was that, if embraced, career change can be exciting and rewarding. If I want to work around federal science in this era, at any time I could be searching for a new job or switching focus despite being successful in my position, partially as a result of working with changing political administrations. I’m aware that this will not be my last job; thankfully, there are many jobs I could be happy doing. As long as you work hard and are successful, there will be positions for you and they often present themselves organically through the network of contacts that you develop and maintain.

The bottom line is that the Knauss process has completely changed the way I think about interviews and my career. When selecting a position, I have no interest in overselling myself or fighting for a job that doesn’t fit. It can be easier said than done, if you are job-searching when out of work, but there should be a strong feeling of a good fit when taking the position. This brings me to the second and primary mantra discussed during the Knauss Fellowship: “Follow the force.” It is a nerdy way of saying that you should feel drawn to the position you are interviewing for and the people you will be working with. It is really just a catchier way of reiterating my 1st and 4th position-hunting priorities. This mantra is one that I will keep with me, and you would be hard-pressed to find any former Knauss fellow that disagrees with it.