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Sandy Starkweather
Katie Valentine

Sandy Starkweather

Dr. Sandy Starkweather works at the David Skaggs Research Center in Boulder, Colorado and is a direct report to the Ocean Observing and Monitoring Division in Silver Spring, Maryland. She also serves as the executive director of the US Arctic Observing Network and is affiliated with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). Over the last nine years at NOAA, she has promoted the convergence of research and routine Arctic observations into products and services in support of broad NOAA, interagency and international objectives, such as improving forecasts of sea ice, understanding the rate of change of black carbon in Arctic environments, and understanding the risks to marine ecosystems of the changing Arctic environment. 

What drew you to your current career or field?

I was drawn to field work in climatology through a love of the outdoors, computer programming and monitoring instrumentation. This quickly led me to graduated field work on the Greenland ice sheet, where I studied the cloud climate of Greenland. After getting my PhD, I continued to work in Greenland doing scientific program management at the largest research station on the ice sheet—Summit Station. Greenland is a stark, awe-inspiring and challenging place to work. There, I directly encountered the challenges and high cost of accurately monitoring the pulse of the planet. I learned that it is not a one-person show. We need strong partnerships, interoperable approaches, high-trust relationships, and compelling shared visions to organize our work.

Early in my graduate work, I had my share of gender-based difficulty, including sexual harassment. While this initially made me feel unwelcome and under-valued—indeed even disadvantaged—as I built better and safer relationships, I started to understand that I could myself become a role model for more welcoming, collaborative and trustworthy models. Today, I consider inclusivity a cornerstone to any successful research collaboration.

What projects or research are you working on now?

Today I serve as the executive director of the US Arctic Observing Network. This is a NOAA-led, interagency and international effort that seeks to promote the convergence of diverse Arctic observations towards value-added products and services in support of societal needs. We have developed a few pilot areas to explore different methodologies and models to systematically develop these products and services. Some of our methodologies are derived directly from the NOAA Observing System Integrated Analysis (or NOSIA). You could consider what we do “NOSIA-light” for Arctic applications like sea ice forecasting and informing marine ecosystem management. 

What do you enjoy most about your work?

People! I meet the most talented and amazing people. Further, I find that people are more than willing to collaborate and share their talents provided there is a successful and supportive framework in which they can do so. We ask scientists to volunteer so much from their overloaded schedules. I strive to listen carefully and understand individual motivations in order to deliver the greatest return on their time investment. When that works, it is a wonderful feeling.

Who do you look to as a role model and why?

I have had to shift my view considerably over the years. My initial role models were bold, individualistic heroes who pushed the boundaries of the world and dealt with physical hardships to “get data”. Today, it is the quieter and more humble types, who work at a more subtle level that get my attention. For example, David Kennedy, our senior advisor for Arctic within NOAA has been an incredible model for supporting and promoting the best work from the best workers. He does so with little fanfare. 

What does success mean to you? 

It means I have made good use of the time and resources that have been assigned to me, especially the voluntary efforts of those who are working with me by choice. I could give lots of specific examples, but in collaborative work I am always seeking to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. To bring people together for those “ah-ha” moments that only happen in group settings. Ultimately, success looks like a group that doesn’t need me anymore. When they proceed under their own steam and their own vision – that’s a huge win.

Recently too, it means that I have touched an early career person who needs to be seen. There are so many talented people in our midst who can feel invisible until a senior person gives them some time. It is a transformative process to behold.

What was the best advice ever given to you that helped you become successful? 

Build your network! I figured this one out on my own. My challenges as a woman in science were worsened when I became isolated. I did not know how to build a network, find trustworthy people and stick up for myself. 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in your career/field, or in general, and how have you overcome them?

I guess I have covered that pretty well already. My experiences have run the gamut from the “come ons to the put downs." I stepped into a technical track in undergrad in the late 80s when many believed that women had “made it” in the work place, myself included. But in my first mechanical engineering lab (where I was the only female student) there was a sign on the bulletin board that read, “Top 10 reasons why a six pack of beer is better than a woman.” Those types of everyday put downs and humiliations were everywhere. They conditioned a feeling in me that I was “lucky to be there” or that I shouldn’t make trouble, and I let myself feel isolated in that. It took me decades to really understand how to be a better advocate for myself and to build a community around me that understood what type of behavior was acceptable and what was not.

What’s been your favorite (or proudest) moment in your career so far? 

Last summer, I spearheaded an effort to convene a panel on women’s experiences in Polar Research at our largest decadal meeting. I was initially met with skepticism and pushback about the value of such a panel discussion. There was a lot of, “Do we still need to be having this conversation?” I managed to get a few sponsors on board but needed to raise a lot more to meet the ambitious goal of supporting some travel and getting lunches paid for 300 audience members.

Then the #metoo movement hit the news. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be a part of it. We exceeded our fund-raising goals. The room sold out. Journals reached out for commentary pieces. But most importantly, countless early career women were in the room. They have so much at stake at the beginning of their career and their faces said it all—“Yes, we still need to be having this conversation.” We owe it to them to keep listening to their struggles, keep opening doors and to bring everyone along in the conversation.

What do you hope to accomplish in the future? What do you hope the future for women in science looks like?

I believe it is without limit. The problems we face as a society are too great to allow us to continue to sideline the talent of half the workforce. What’s more, we need that full range of perspectives across ALL identities, including socio-economic and ideological, to address the challenges our society faces. 

My hope is that through promoting more inclusive communities of researchers we re-imagine the models through which we share and merge our work into greater wholes. And that those efforts, as a result, are increasingly useful to the society that our work is meant to serve.

Looking back, what would you tell yourself when you were 12 years old? Or what advice would you give to a woman just starting out in her career?

Again—build a network of colleagues you trust and admire for how they treat people. 

Today, as a mid-career person, secure in myself, it is easy to say “Speak up!” But as an early career person, I know how difficult that is. I would encourage everyone who is struggling with something that doesn’t feel right to one, believe in the legitimacy of their own feelings, and two, find a trustworthy person in your surroundings who can help you advocate for yourself. Don’t ignore your inner voice.

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