President's Corner

Pathways to careers in the geosciences: GEO Forum 2004

What do a popular TV meteorologist, an aircraft accident investigator, a trans-ocean sailboat racer, and a moviemaker have in common? All have successful and exciting careers in one or more areas of the geosciences or related fields, all are passionate about their work, and all are committed to encouraging young people from diverse backgrounds to enter the field.

A GEO Forum participant navigates the day's events. (Photos by Bob Henson, unless otherwise noted.)

These speakers joined 14 others, including myself, at GEO Forum 2004: Grand Experiences and Opportunities in the Geosciences. Sponsored by UCAR, the National Academies, the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, and the American Meteorological Society, the meeting took place on 30 March in the inspirational surroundings of the National Academy of Sciences headquarters in Washington, D.C. The forum’s purpose was to introduce area undergraduates and some high-school students—especially those from underrepresented groups—to interesting role models at various stages of their geoscience careers.

We hoped to encourage students who have not yet made up their minds about graduate studies and careers to enter the geosciences. We also hoped to give students who have already made up their minds about graduate schools and careers, no matter what fields they have chosen, helpful advice from a diverse set of role models.

While the forum attendance was somewhat lower than we had anticipated (see below), the meeting was an outstanding success for those who did attend, judging from their enthusiastic response. One student said on her evaluation that the forum was "an inspiration for graduate school and reaffirmed my decision to continue research in oceanography. " Another called it "eye-opening in career opportunities outside the field of research—a great show of diversity of backgrounds." Yet another participant commented, "The experiences, enthusiasm, and curiosity that the panel speakers brought forth renewed in me an awe of science that harkened back to my childhood amazement of how the world works. The professionals provided encouragement to persevere in the name of science and to further my education."

The enthusiasm was not limited to the students. NCAR scientist Warren Washington (head of the National Science Board) gave a morning address and then spent the rest of the day at the forum, attending sessions and mingling with students. NASA astronaut and Earth scientist Piers Sellers, exclaimed, "This is much more interesting than I thought it would be—I am really enjoying it!"

Commonalities and differences

Most of the participants and speakers did not know each other before the event, and the talks were not orchestrated or coordinated to reflect any particular set of values or advice. Yet many common themes and messages emerged.

• The speakers were enthusiastic, good communicators, balanced, hard-working, humorous, dedicated, successful, optimistic, positive, inquisitive, intrepid, and, above all, happy with their lives.

• While the speakers were chosen in part to reflect diversity in the geoscience work force, that diversity extended not only to gender and ethnicity but also to age, birthplace, childhood background, university education, family status and number of children, recreational preferences, and life pathways. Several speakers hold joint graduate degrees or studied different topics at different points in their university educations. Many of the participants noted the importance of sports in their early and present lives, including soccer, baseball, sailing, rugby, scuba diving, and skiing.

Weathercaster Bob Ryan, perhaps the speaker best known to this audience, led off the forum by providing his perspective on the importance of science in society. He noted that in these troubled and often irrational times, science stands out as an endeavor that reaches conclusions at the end of a study rather than at the beginning. Other speakers provided perceptive and timely insights as well. David Jhirad (World Resources Institute) noted that it was better to provide partial answers to really important problems and interrelationships, such as climate change and society, rather than complete answers to trivial problems. Margaret Leinen, head of NSF's geosciences directorate, discussed the importance of ocean-atmosphere interactions and global warming—just days after the first hurricane ever observed in the South Atlantic hit the east coast of Brazil.

Almost all speakers talked about their career pathways rather than emphasizing their research. Yet, the science also emerged, and the effect was to personalize the science and make the careers seem real and attainable. Many speakers said (directly or indirectly), "I can’t believe someone pays me for what I do."

The overall message was clear:

• Anything is possible

• Science is not dull

• Scientists are not nerds or geeks; they are regular people with lives outside of their work

• Life paths are full of surprises

• Opportunism and optimism are important

• Financial support at early career stages is important

•Many once-formidable barriers, such as race, gender, and family status (including pregnancy), are no longer career blockers

•While it isn’t easy to have it all, you can have a full and balanced life—family, career, friends, travel, fun—while at the same time contributing to society

Ernesto Muñoz (left) and Katherine Young (center), graduate students at the University of Maryland at College Park, chat with a prospective recruit.

Finally, many speakers emphasized the importance of mentorship and role models in their lives. Several said they chose universities based on the reputation of certain faculty as mentors. They urged the students not to rely on chance but to actively seek out mentors as they advance through school and careers. They also noted the value of having role models from ethnic and cultural backgrounds similar to one’s own.

Next steps

As the first meeting of this type for students in the geosciences, GEO

Orlando Taylor (Howard University), one of the organizers behind GEO Forum 2004, addresses the meeting. (Photo by Rick Anthes.)

Forum 2004 taught us much about how to organize and conduct such events. One of the most gratifying aspects was the partnership among its sponsors, especially TIAA-CREF. Without its support, and the assistance of TIAA-CREF's Geri Bellino, this event could not have happened. Additional support came from RS Information Systems, Inc. and The Weather Channel. Cindy Schmidt and her colleagues from the UCAR Office of Government Affairs devoted several months of effort, along with a number of other volunteers, to organize the forum.

Although the forum was extensively publicized at colleges and universities throughout the Washington, D.C., area, the attendance fell short of our 200-student goal. Nearly 150 students registered in advance, but only about 60 showed up. The best turnouts were from institutions such as the U.S. Naval Academy and Millersville University, where faculty members helped organize transportation and accompanied the students. We plan to examine what worked and what didn’t to see how the community might use this first forum as a test run for future events.

GEO Forum speaker profiles
Lixion Avila
Hurricane specialist, National Hurricane Center; born and raised in Cuba
Ph.D. in meteorology, University of Miami
Ronald McPherson
Executive director, AMS; former director of the NWS National Centers for Environmental Prediction
Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences, University of Texas at Austin
Chris Bedford
Owner and chief meteorologist, Sailing Weather Services; sails with and supports competitive trans-ocean yacht races
B.S. in atmospheric and oceanic science, University of Michigan
Kevin Petty
Senior meteorologist, National Transportation Safety Board; serves as technical expert on the role of weather in accident investigations, primarily in aviation
Ph.D. in atmospheric science, Ohio State University
Genene Fisher
Fellow, AMS Atmospheric Policy Program; studies space weather policy, climate change policy, federal research funding
Ph.D. in atmospheric and space sciences and master's in public policy, University of Michigan
Maria Pirone
Vice president of product and market development, Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc.; over 25 years of experience managing weather information services and other forms of information technology
Degrees in chemistry and business administration, Suffolk University
S. Julio Friedmann
Research scientist, University of Maryland; studies carbon sequestration, paleoclimatology, planetary geology, landslide physics
Ph.D., University of Southern California
Bob Ryan
Broadcast meteorologist at NBC4 (WRC-TV, Washington, D.C.)
Master's in atmospheric science, University at Albany, State University of
New York
Rodney Hunt
President and chief executive officer of RS Information Systems, Inc.; provides information technology, systems engineering, and scientific
services to government and private sectors, including the NWS
Dual degrees in operations research and industrial engineering, Cornell
and George Washington universities
Andrea Sealy
Doctoral student in atmospheric science, Howard University; born in Barbados
B.S. in meteorology (magna cum laude), Jackson State University
David Jhirad
Vice president of research, World Resources Institute; oversees planning, quality, and evaluation of WRI research; teaches courses at Georgetown University on energy, world affairs, and mathematics for policy
Ph.D. in applied physics, Harvard University
Susan Sakimoto
Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; studies volcanology, planetary geology, and geophysics
Ph.D. in Earth and planetary sciences, Johns Hopkins University
Margaret Leinen
Assistant director for geosciences, NSF; coordinates programs in environ­mental science, engineering, and education
Ph.D. in geological oceanography, University of Rhode Island
Piers Sellers
NASA astronaut; flew on STS-112, an International Space Station assembly ­mission
Ph.D. in biometeorology, Leeds University
Catalina Martinez
Physical scientist, NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration; manages projects and conducts public outreach
Master’s degrees in oceanography and marine affairs, University of Rhode Island
Karen Wayland
Legislative advocate, Natural Resources Defense Council
Dual Ph.D. in geology and resource development, Michigan State University
Don Middleton
Computer scientist, NCAR; leads the Visualization and Enabling Technology Section in NCAR’s Scientific Computing Division
Master’s in electrical and computer engineering, Louisiana State University
Warren Washington
Senior scientist, NCAR; National Science Board chair; internationally recognized expert in climate modeling and related research
Ph.D. in meteorology, Pennsylvania State University


Some quotes from the forum

"Although I was a happy scientist, I always wanted
to be an astronaut."
—Piers Sellers, NASA

"You will have moments when you feel frustrated. . . .   Just remember that you love this field and why you’re doing it."
—Andrea Seely, Howard University

 "You're not limited by your science degree. . . .
Opportunities could open up that you can’t predict."
—Genene Fisher, AMS

"What we really need is scientists who are passionate
about what they do, because that’s really where
a lot of the innovations come from."
—Susan Sakimoto, NASA

 "Whatever you do, make sure you enjoy it. . . .
If it’s right for you, it’s right."
—Chris Bedford, Sailing Weather Services

 "Only you can match your interests with the many
kinds of jobs available in geosciences."

—Margaret Leinen, NSF


Also in this issue...

A new line of research catches fire

NCAR reorganization plan moves ahead

Initiatives in Brief: Data Assimilation Initiative (DAI)

Web Watch - A current-weather site for specialists as well as generalists

Science Bit - Humidities drop while moisture climbs at upper levels

Science Bit - More evidence for snowball Earth

UCAR Community Calendar