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Managing uncertainty - and ocean science
Katie Valentine
/ Categories: Profile, Women in Research

Managing uncertainty - and ocean science

Jessica Snowden is the Deputy Director for NOAA Research's Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing Program. Jessica has been in this position since April 2020, and previously worked at NOAA’s U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System Program. She lives in Silver Spring with her husband, daughter, two cats, and a dog, and can’t wait to be able to walk in to work again.

What were some of the challenges you faced this year? Have you been able to adapt and if so, how?

Both my partner and I work for NOAA, and are very fortunate to have jobs we continue to do from home. We safely moved twice this past year, and I started my new job as deputy director in April 2020. We are privileged in many ways, including being able to support our daughter through this year of moves and virtual schooling. 

That said, it's still been incredibly hard, with some of the lowest lows I've ever experienced. Adapting for me has focused on understanding and practicing “grace” — mainly with myself. Every person and household is weathering this pandemic differently and in the best way they can. I try very hard not to compare our decisions and situations with others, or with how we lived just over a year ago. I’m doing the best I can, which just has to be OK. I’ve also become highly skilled at using the Google mute “control-d” function. 

Has your idea or definition of success changed in the past year?

I definitely spent the majority of this past year feeling like I was failing on all fronts. To remedy that, I’ve tried very hard to be present in each moment and mentally shelve the rest of my to do list until it was the next item’s turn for attention. Control what you can control; I can’t always stop my daughter from bursting in during a meeting, but I can take a breath, ask her to say hello and practice good manners with the faces on my screen, and choose to not be upset about it. Also, did I mention the mute function? Success!

The RRS James Cook

The RRS James Cook

Jessica stands next to the British research vessel RRS James Cook, docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in January 2020. Photo credit: Emily Smith (NOAA).

What gives you hope, either with regard to science, your field in NOAA, or in general?

As worn down as I feel from the past year of pandemic life and increased collective awareness of racial injustice, I do feel hopeful in so many ways. I am filled with hope for the next generation; I’m hopeful that as an agency we will continue to grow our scientific value to the nation; I’m hopeful that NOAA will become increasingly representative of what our nation looks like. Change is an opportunity - I truly hope we will be able to carry forward the best parts of what we’ve learned through this past year both in how we do science and how we work together to advance our understanding of the ocean while decreasing our human impacts on it. 

What do you enjoy most about your work?

What I enjoy most about my work is also what made me want to be a marine scientist in the first place: learning about the ocean and all things in it. While I discovered earlier in my career that practicing science was not my passion, I found my way to a place and program where I get to learn from ocean scientists, and spend my time finding ways to ensure they have the resources and policies needed to do their jobs. Hopefully one day in the not-too-distant future I'll be able to join some of these scientists in the field to see first hand how they do their job and be able to even better support it from NOAA in Silver Spring, Maryland!

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

There’s a meme I came across sometime in the past year or so: “Pick your battles. Pick ... wait, pick fewer … stop, that’s too many. Put some back.”  There are more battles to fight than time or energy allow. My hope for future women in science is that they are able to pick different battles. That women will see themselves everywhere in STEM, and be able to invest more of their energy and voices in fighting for equality and equity of others.

What advice would you give to women who are starting out in their careers?

I feel so fortunate to interact with many women who are starting out - I’m learning so much from them! Many are already doing the things I didn’t do, and wish I had. My advice is to ask more questions! Find mentor(s)! Invest in your retirement savings immediately (Do. It.)! Also, if you’re not sure exactly what comes next in your career, give yourself the grace of being ok with that uncertainty. There’s no one right way to the future, so try to enjoy being where you are.

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