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Spotlight on Commerce: Dr. James Turner, Director of the Office of International Affairs

Dr. James Turner, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for International Affairs and Director of NOAA Office of International Affairs

Ed. Note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series, which highlights members of the Department of Commerce who are contributing to the president's vision of an America Built to Last.

I am a native of Washington, DC and had the benefit of growing up in a home with loving parents who stressed family, integrity, achievement, service, and education.The values I learned at home were reinforced by those I was taught by the Jesuits at Gonzaga High School.  This strong foundation led me to receive degrees in Physics from MIT (Ph.D.) and Johns Hopkins (B.A.). 

Physics is simultaneously empowering and humbling.  It is empowering in the knowledge and understanding that helps others and humbling in that often the more we learn the more we realize we do not know.  When I was in school, it was disturbing that so few minorities and women were considering Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) career fields.  So, after finishing at MIT, I applied for positions at universities in Africa and at Historically Black Colleges in the U.S.  My first two positions were on the Physics Faculties at Southern University (Baton Rouge) and Morehouse College.  I am very proud that, among the students I taught while at Morehouse, two are now NOAA scientists.

Most of my career was spent at the Department of Energy (DOE).  I worked in magnetic fusion energy, nuclear weapons safety, and nuclear nonproliferation.  Among my responsibilities were assuring that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile was safe, directing programs to improve the safety of Soviet designed reactors, and taking steps to demonstrate that highly enriched uranium purchased from Russia as a nonproliferation measure originated from nuclear weapons.  With the end of the Cold War, I led the DOE portion of the U.S. effort for the safe, secure dismantlement of nuclear weapons in the Former Soviet Union.  I also directed the project that led to the permanent shutdown of Russia’s last three weapons-grade plutonium production reactors. 

I joined NOAA in 2008 as the Director of the Office of International Affairs and Senior Adviser to the NOAA Administrator.  In this role, I am fortunate to work with a staff that routinely goes well above and beyond the norm to achieve NOAA’s and the Administration’s goals.  We provide policy advice, recommendations, and support to the Administrator, represent NOAA and the U.S. with foreign governments and in international fora, establish policies, guidelines, and procedures for NOAA’s international programs, and provide support and coordination to NOAA’s Line Offices.  Areas of personal interest to me are Food Security, International Disaster Response and Recovery, Science Diplomacy, and using NOAA’s capacity- building work to provide opportunities to empower women. 

Outside of the workplace, I am active member of Metropolitan AME Church and a member of the NAACP and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.  I am on the Board of my Church’s Scholarship Endowment and participated in numerous tutoring programs.  Through the Community Development Corporation, which is the outreach arm of the Church, I began leading STEM-focused events to garner and retain the interest of middle school children in careers in these fields.  I served on Committees on Minorities in professional scientific organizations.  I often speak to various groups on STEM careers and served on the Scholarship Committee of the Fraternity. 

I think Black History Month is important because our contributions continue to be ignored or trivialized.  When my daughter was in grade school, she was angry that only athletes and entertainers were discussed during that Month.  She chose to do a presentation on my mother who with a few other like-minded women founded a professional organization for Black nurses during the depths of the Depression and in the face of segregation and major barriers to all women. This organization, that celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, now has chapters throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean and in Africa.  Inspired by my daughter’s initiative, I have wonderful memories of the Black History Month projects my wife and I did with our children’s grade school classes.

As advice to others, I recall my father quoting Caesar to me, “Veni, vidi, vici”, (I came, I saw, I conquered), the 27th Psalm “The Lord is my Light and my Salvation whom shall I fear?", and my mother’s dictum, “Do nothing less than your best”.   These words, and my parents’ insistence on 100% effort at all times, continue to give me confidence to overcome obstacles and to figure out solutions to problems I may face.  It is a tribute to our parents that my sister and I possess advanced degrees from top schools.  My wife, sister, brother-in-law, and I were able to pass these values to the next generation; between the seven children we have 3 M.B.As, 2 J.Ds, an appointment to the Foreign Service, an M.D. and a Ph.D.  My current agenda is to get my 3 grand children and grandniece into the science pipeline.

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