Stretching in new directions – Part II: Interview with Jane Lubchenco

On May 7, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco received an aerial tour of coastal Louisiana with Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Counsel on Environmental Quality. NOAA Corps CAPT Michele Finn coordinated the flight. Here, Lubchenco and Finn discuss the situation after the survey. Credit: NOAA.

So how does one become a successful academic and then turn around and create an equally successful career as a scientific leader and advisor to the, ahem, President of the United States? One important factor, that arose not with just Jane Lubchenco but with all the women I interviewed, was explicit mentorship.   Each one of these women described a mentor(s), who championed them as scientists and encouraged them to step beyond what they might imagine for themselves.  In Part II of our interview, Dr. Lubchenco summed it up nicely when she said, “Each of my mentors told me in their own way to believe in myself and to stretch in new directions.”  What else contributed to her astounding success?  Read on.

Me:  What skills did you pick up during your schooling that you have found useful in your current position?

Dr. Lubchenco:  A lot of my career has involved working with people.  Being 1 of 6 in a family gives you a lot of experience with people, but I was also fortunate in having a wealth of other opportunities to develop people skills: Girl Scouts, a variety of other extracurricular activities and sports. Despite the fact that girls in my era (pre-Title IX**), had few opportunities to play sports, my parents made sure my 5 sisters and I had access to a lot of team and individual sports.    These extracurricular activities taught me leadership, management skills and teamwork.  Learning the rough and tumble of sports has been especially helpful in learning to navigate the rough and tumble political world in Washington, DC.

ME:  Academic training doesn’t seem to prepare individuals to be part of this process.  But in 1998 you, Hal Mooney and Paul Risser founded the Aldo Leopold leadership program to help provide academic researchers with skills to be effective communicators within the public policy arena.  Can you tell me a little bit about what you thought was missing from academia that led you to establish this program?

Dr. Lubchenco:  I agree with you that in general, graduate programs, especially PhD programs, focus primarily on training scientists to do research and in some cases to teach.  They do not typically teach scientists to share their knowledge to the broader world. We started the Leopold Leadership program with the explicit goal of teaching scientists to be better communicators.  We focused on mid-career academic environmental scientists for a number of reasons.  Mid-career scientists (usually recently tenured), are at a point in their career where a. they have established scientific credibility, and b. they don’t have to worry so much about getting tenure and so they can do things with public communication that the academic community sees as risky.  Our nightmare was that no one would apply to the program because being a public communicator was anathema to the culture of the academic community.  We were more than pleasantly surprised, and in fact, overwhelmed, by the applications of spectacular scientists who were really, really good and who appreciated that they needed and wanted additional training.  Each year 20 academic mid-career environmental scientists participate in this training.  To date there are 180 Leopold Leadership Fellows.  They are stellar scientists now equipped to be leaders and effective communicators. The program focuses on  leadership and communication skills, e.g., with media, policy makers, the private sector, and NGOs.  Other goals of the program were to change the culture of academia to make it more acceptable for scientists to be public figures.  A great outcome has been that many of the Leopold Leadership fellows have replicated the training at their home institutions, enabling graduate and undergraduate students to benefit. A sister program is the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS) — another program I co-founded — that focuses on communicating marine sciences to the public and policy makers.

Me:  Do you think learning to speak to the public is something that should be included as part of the graduate training and post-graduate training?

Dr. Lubchenco:  Absolutely.  I think graduate students and postdocs are demanding it.  I’m fond of saying that I think we need to train our scientists to be bilingual.  They need to learn the language of science, which is very technical, full nuances, jargon, all of which are important and connote important meaning.  But scientists also need to learn to speak the language of lay people.  This means knowing how to tell stories, how to use and find analogies that are appropriate. Learning how to translate something that is really complicated into something that is understandable to lay people but still accurate is not an easy thing to do.  It takes a lot of work and a lot of practice.

Me:  Is this something you picked up during your time as a researcher?

Dr. Lubchenco:  One of the reasons that I founded these programs was to figure out how to do some of this myself.  I needed the training.  And it wasn’t that I was the expert, it was that I wanted to learn and so this was a good way to do so.

Me:  Young career scientists are in a catch 22 they need to spend their time focused on writing publications, getting grants, essentially communicating to other scientists.  This often means less time in the way of public outreach.  How can we encourage universities to recognize and value scientific work that doesn’t necessarily contribute immediately to the scientific literature but that does contribute to the public’s understanding of what is science.

Dr. Lubchenco:  That is a conundrum and one that is often used as an excuse to not share knowledge more broadly.  But it is one that is changing in part because undergrads, grad students, and postdocs are pushing for change.  They see the need to share information and many are anxious to learn to do it well. I think that universities need to respect that and encourage it, but that this is part of the changing culture that needs to happen.

Me:  How does one communicate science with those who are hostile to research, or those who have an innate mistrust of scientists and academia.  How have you been able to overcome that?

Dr. Lubchenco: I think one key element is finding common ground.  There are multiple opportunities for finding something in common that you can build on, such as caring about the world that our kids will live in.  I think it’s important to talk about issues more broadly than just the specific narrow challenge that is before someone.  I always look for opportunities to talk face to face with someone where you can really explore differences and commonalities.  I don’t believe that science is or should be partisan and I resist every attempt to try to make it so.  I know people of many political persuasions who respect science deeply.  I also know those who do not.  It’s important that we exchange ideas and perspectives.

Me:  In that same Nature article that featured you as newsmaker of the year, it says that you turned down the offer from Obama’s transition team repeatedly.   What made you change your mind and leave academia to take up this position?

Dr. Lubchenco:  I turned it down initially because I thought there were better people that they should be looking at.  When I was approached I was in Australia giving lectures, doing fieldwork, and meeting with colleagues.  The head of the president-elect’s transition team called to ask if I would come to Chicago and meet with the president-elect about the job.  I realized at that point that if I said yes I was saying I would seriously consider a job.  Bottom line: it was hard to say no to the President-Elect Obama.

Me:  I know you’ve made some pretty amazing changes at NOAA but do you feel like you have a lot left to do and if so what sorts of things do you want to accomplish.

Dr. Lubchenco:  I was very fortunate to come into a very vibrant agency that had a lot of terrific ideas about new directions.  What we have been working on over the last couple of years was a hybrid of new things that were priorities for me and things that they had been working on that I thought were brilliant and have embraced.  It is a collectively designed agenda and yes we still have a lot to do.  I’m really proud of the progress we have made.   There are major challenges ahead, especially with the downward pressure on the budget.  The nation does need to live within its means, but I see so many vital science-based services and stewardship that the nation needs from NOAA.  I often hold up a nickel when I’m talking about NOAA and say that this nickel represents one of the best bargains in this country.  It costs each American less than 5 cents a day to run NOAA.  With that you get the best weather forecasts and disaster warnings in the world, the best fishery management, people working towards healthy oceans and coasts, critical environmental intelligence that supports jobs, the economy and national security.  It is a spectacular bargain.

Me:  I wanted to ask you a little bit about your mentors.  What advice did your mentors offer and did you take that advice?

Dr. Lubchenco:  Each of my mentors told me in their own way to believe in myself and to stretch in new directions.  They often suggested that I consider opportunities that I thought were simply impossible for me to do and yet they seemed to think it was the logical next step.  I wasn’t somebody who lacked self-confidence, but they helped me gain a better sense of my potential.

Me:  What advice can offer a young scientist who is interested in marrying scientific research with public outreach?

Dr. Lubchenco:  I think of one of the best things they can do is to explore opportunities to gain real world experience using their science in a public setting.  For example, the AAAS Fellowship program and the Sea Grant/Knauss Fellowships are excellent vehicles for graduate students and postdocs to explore the world of policy and management without having to commit to that world for good.  It’s a way of trying it on and seeing how well you like it.  I interact with a lot of our fellows and rely on them heavily because they are absolutely on top of the latest scientist development.  They are a source of inspiration to me and in return I spend time interacting with and mentoring them both formally and informally.

**Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a United States law, enacted on June 23, 1972, that says “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…” From Wikipedia

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About Dilara Ally

Dilara Ally works as a Bioinformatics Scientist for one of the hottest biofuel companies in San Diego, CA called SG Biofuels.
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