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.

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