UCAR Communications


staff notes monthly

April 2003

Karyn Sawyer weighs in on bombs, eels, and other career diversions

You might think Karyn Sawyer, director of the Joint Office for Science Support, lives for the tropics. She’s been to dozens of countries near the Equator during more than 20 years of coordinating field projects. But as it happens, this Montana native prefers a cool day to a torrid one, and she could live without two common aspects of low latitudes: water (since she doesn’t swim) and snakes.

Karyn Sawyer

“Earthworm or king cobra—it’s all the same to me,” Karyn acknowledged on 6 March to an overflow crowd in the Foothills Lab auditorium. As part of the Coaching Peers series of talks organized by UCAR administrators, Karyn took the audience on a whirlwind tour of the good, the bad, and the ugly in field-project travel in her talk, entitled “Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt” (actually, she favors flowing skirts over T-shirts). Karyn also passed on some of the wisdom she’s accumulated climbing UCAR’s corporate ladder.

The first step was happenstance. After graduating from CU in 1969 with a degree in English literature and a minor in geology, Karyn found herself without any marketable skills. One day, while her father was visiting Boulder, she drove him up Table Mesa Drive to see the NCAR site. “He gently suggested I ought to get a job, now that I was out of school. So I said, ‘I’ll go in and apply.’ And here I am, 31 years later.”

Life on the road

Karyn’s first job, a brief stint as secretary to the ACD director, was followed by nearly a decade assisting John Firor, the director of NCAR at the time. Then came an assignment in 1979 that marked a turning point in her career: handling logistics for the India-based Monsoon Experiment, aimed at improving observations of the seasonal cycle that sustains agriculture across Asia. Karyn’s boss on the project was Joach Kuettner, now a UCAR distinguished scientist (see the March issue of Staff Notes Monthly). The culture, food, and people of India clicked immediately with Karyn. “A lot of people don’t like India, but I loved it,” she said.

That glimmer of a calling turned into a full-time change in work in 1982, when Karyn convinced UCAR and NCAR management to form the International Project Office. The new program centralized the skills in field-project support that Karyn, Gene Martin, and others had been accumulating.

Through several iterations, the office has grown to a staff of 80, about half in Boulder and half in Washington. It may be the only UOP program whose current name arose from a contest. Karyn explained, “I offered a six-pack of beer to whoever could come up with a dignified acronym for the office. . . . [UCAR president] Rick Anthes came up with JOSS, so he got the six-pack and we got the dignified acronym.”

Illustrating the remarkable extent of her travels, Karyn showed a career- history map covered with dots for each of her far-flung points of call. She says she stopped counting countries when the total reached 100.

It took little prodding from the audience for Karyn to share anecdotes from some of her more memorable trips. There was the 1981 eclipse expedition in Indonesia, for example, when Karyn spent six weeks camping in the jungle with colleagues from the High Altitude Observatory and other institutions. Each day “snake beaters” drove reptiles away from the path between the observing site and the campsite. King cobras, undaunted, would poke their heads up just beyond the path. After another tropical expedition, this one to Java, Karyn devised her own escape: “I checked into a nice hotel with a quart of Scotch and a pint of bubble bath.”

Eclipse expeditions have ranked among her most stressful projects, said Karyn. “You have to have everything there and working for an eight-minute window.”

Then there were the lessons learned along the way. On a 1983 eclipse expedition to Indonesia, one key package didn’t arrive. Karyn went to Hong Kong to retrieve the shipment and was steered to a tin shed full of identical-looking boxes. She spent two days rummaging in the heat before she found the needed box (and she learned to mark future shipments as boldly as possible).

Despite her travels, Karyn said her foreign language skills are limited to “second-grade Italian and opera Italian.” Plus, she added, “I can order a beer and find the ladies’ room in about 17 languages.” (Projects in non–English speaking nations often rely on interpreters from the U.S. Department of State, she noted.)

Getting along

In reflecting on her career, Karyn stressed the importance of people skills. “A modicum of grace and good manners gets you through all kinds of tight spots,” she said. Conversely, haughtiness or a demanding tone may not produce the response you desire. “If you get impatient in India,” for example, “everything stops.”

In Karyn’s book, being a successful manager involves a grab bag of talents. “Nobody springs fully formed as a good manager or a reliable person. I didn’t have a plan, but I learned to be a good opportunist. I found out my strengths and weaknesses.” She urges people to find out what they’re good at, then to focus on those strengths.

The key skills every manager needs are common sense, commitment, a big-picture outlook, and the ability to multitask, Karyn said. Dealing with conflict is a great opportunity to look beyond the surface, she added. “Ferret out the real question. The problem you’re facing is never what the real problem is.” •Bob Henson

Travel tips from Karyn

  • Hydrate carefully. “I always drink bottled water. [Bad] water will kill you faster than anything.” She’s had only two “truly heroic” cases of food poisoning.
  • Minimize terror risks. At airports, Karyn sticks close to pillars or other objects that could serve as hasty shelter if gunshots broke out. “I’ve been on two airplanes that had [terrorist-planted] bombs on them. . . . I don’t particularly want to get blown up in somebody else’s argument.” In both cases, fortunately, the bombs were found. Does she worry about safety these days? “More than I used to.”
  • Avoid animated food. Karyn has eaten everything from birds’ brains to scorpion, but she met her match on a trip to China, where she and the rest of a UCAR contingent were served a dish that may have still been alive. “The moving eel just about sent me around the bend. I don’t even like eel when they’re dead.” She did eat it, though.

Also in this issue...

Karyn Sawyer weighs in on bombs, eels, and other career diversions

The marathoners: Staffers put in long shifts during snowstorm

ACD Studies Globe-Trotting Chemicals

A better fit: Jeffco to get new hangar

Refurbishment update: ML Library will move temporarily

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