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Spotlight on Commerce: Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Acting NOAA Administrator

Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Acting NOAA Administrator

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.

Guest blog post by Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Acting NOAA Administrator

NOAA transforms scientific data about our complex and ever-changing Earth into environmental information that touches every American, protecting their lives and livelihoods against natural hazards, informing their personal and business decisions and supporting wise management of natural resources in our coastal and marine environments. We operate the nation’s weather satellites, and our National Weather Service is the source of all your weather forecasts. Other NOAA units produce the Nation’s nautical charts, manage our marine fisheries and operate America’s underwater national parks, known as National Marine Sanctuaries. As Acting Administrator, I oversee the agency’s work to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts, to provide timely, reliable ‘environmental intelligence’ to inform sound decision-making by citizens, businesses and public officials, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.

I was lucky to grow up in Southern California at a time when an adventurous young girl could safely roam the open hills and valleys nearby, whetting her appetite for the grander expeditions she hoped to make someday. I was also inspired by the daring feats of America’s first astronauts and the exotic adventures of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, which filled our TV screens and magazines regularly and reinforced just how exciting a life of exploration could be. It never bothered me that everyone I was watching was male. My brother and I were raised with the view that every person has unique talents and interests and should pursue them as they see fit, regardless of what someone else thinks is ‘right’ for girls or boys. This attitude, plus my parents’ unwavering trust and support, inoculated me against the peer pressure I encountered at school and with my neighborhood friends and helped me steer my own course.

A book changed the course of my life during my freshman year at college. I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz, because my family could afford it, and they had a strong Russian language program. My grand plan to parlay my flair for foreign languages into a career of global exploration came undone in the very first term. All UCSC freshmen had to take three out-of-major courses, and so I found myself in an introductory marine biology course. Sir Alistair Hardy’s memoir “Great Waters” - the ‘textbook’ for the class – was equal parts a coming-of-age adventure story, grand travelogue and primer on doing science at sea. I realized that oceanographers led exactly the kind of life I had dreamt of as a child, lives full of inquiry, exploration and adventure. I was hooked!

As someone who has run a business and also worked with thousands of students of all ages, I know that rigorous, hands-on science education is one the most powerful ways to equip our students with the skills businesses are looking for. Well-designed science learning experiences teach students how to observe, assess and formulate ways to analyze or make sense of new data and experiences. They also hone key skills such as critical thinking, clear logical reasoning and rigorous quantitative analysis. In short, they develop students’ ability to encounter a new problem and figure out quite independently how to solve it intelligently and creatively. This is precisely the skill set needed to ensure America’s economy remains vibrant and innovative.

The advice I offer to people (not just women) interested in the challenging and rewarding work we do at NOAA is simple: Center your career on your strengths and passions. Dare to set ambitious goals and high standards for yourself. Always do your best, and stay hungry to learn. Make your motto Acta non Verba (Deeds, not Words).

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