Interview

What were some of the things that interested you as a child?

When I was a little girl, I was very involved in baseball. As I was thinking about this question, I was trying to remember what it was like to be five years old, and I remember a lot of baseball games and I remember listening to the White Sox on the radio a lot. I did other kinds of outdoor things like riding bikes. Our parents didn’t drive us around as much as children are driven around now. Your bicycle was your ticket to freedom, getting away from home, getting to where you wanted. So we did an awful lot of bicycle riding.

And I read a lot. My father did not believe in television. He thought it was a creature that was going to prevent me from normal intellectual development. So we had no television.

How did you first become interested in science?

I was always interested in collecting things. I had collections of rocks, and I had collections of leaves, and I had collections of pictures of animals. Those sorts of natural science things. But I never thought I wanted to be a scientist until I went to high school. I was intrigued with Perry Mason. I thought that heaven would be to be a criminal lawyer. I wanted to be Perry Mason. I told people I was going to be a lawyer.

My very first science class in high school was geology. And I liked it. I liked it a lot. My second class was biology. And I liked that a lot. By the time I got to biology, I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to be a biochemist. I spent almost every day after school in the labs hanging out with a few other students that were really interested in science. Then there were the usual science fairs and science programs at colleges that were during the summer or on Saturdays.

Why did you choose geology?

I went to college at the University of Illinois, and I thought I was going to be a biochemist. And the important lesson for universities, every single class I had had 400 students in it except my geology class, which had a hundred students in it. I actually got to know the faculty member and I got to know the graduate student who was assisting. I just felt lost in the other classes.

My chemistry classes were almost exclusively men. The very first class I walked into in college had 400 students, three of them women. The professor had assigned us seats because that's the way they took attendance, except for the women. He said he would move us around every day so that all of the guys would get a chance to sit next to a girl sometime in class.

Anyway, the huge classes and impersonal atmosphere really turned me off of chemistry. And the other thing that happened in geology was they took us out on field trips on the weekend. We all went out and our professor was there, and five or six graduate students were there to keep us all in line, It was fall term, it was winter in Illinois, and it was snowing, and it was muddy and it was cold, and they were right there with us. So when we were all freezing on the outcrop, they were freezing on the outcrop. When we were all sitting in the bus huddled with our lunches, they were right there with us. I had never had that type of relationship with a scientist or with a teacher. They were actually doing the same thing I was doing. It was very very exciting.

How did you go about pursuing a degree in science? How did you choose a graduate school and advisor?

When I graduated from undergraduate school, I had a five-month-old child. I didn't have the freedom to go to graduate school at that point, so I went to work for the Illinois Geological Survey. I worked for them for a couple of years. Then I decided that I was going to go to graduate school. I wasn't going to let it hold me up. I applied to Illinois for admission to graduate school. I took one course a semester for about two years. And at that point, I had discovered oceanography. And I decided I wanted to get my degree in oceanography.

I applied to four or five graduate schools, and I told them about what I was doing at the survey, which was serving as a field assistant for the lakes program. So when I applied to graduate school, I had one school offer me a job as a technician. I got a call saying we aren't going to let you into graduate school, but you can come as a technician for our lakes program. And I had one school write to me and say, we have extremely competitive admission to our program, and with that in mind, if you still want an application, we'll send you one. I was so offended by that I decided I didn't want to go there. And another school told me that since I didn't have a background in oceanography already, I was unacceptable.

And then Oregon State called me, and I still remember I was in the bathtub, and I got a call from Paul Kolmar, who was a faculty member there, and so I was standing in my kitchen wrapped in a towel, freezing. It was the middle of winter, I was talking on the phone with this guy in Oregon, and he said we want you to come, and we'll give you an assistantship, and he said I want you to be my graduate student because you are doing everything all my graduate students are doing already. And I was standing there saying Yes! Yes! I'll come!

You ended up following your advisor Ross Heath to the University of Rhode Island where you got your Ph.D. and then joined the faculty. How did you make the transition from research to administration.

From the beginning, my research as a paleooceanographer was very collaborative. I tended to work with other groups, and we put together campaigns to go out and get sediments and to start working on them.

That sort of organization with a lot of people going out to do something was something I enjoyed doing. By the time the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study started—which sought to collect material through sediment traps falling through the water column and compare it to what we were looking at in the sediments—there was a good chance they were going to do their first big comprehensive experiment in the equatorial Pacific. And that’s where I had done a lot of my research. So I started working very closely with that group and wound up helping to coordinate the JGOFS equatorial Pacific Program, which was about seven cruises and 70 principle investigators.

It was during that time I was asked to be Associate Dean at the University of Rhode Island. Then in 1991, the dean left to go to another institution, and I was asked whether I would serve as interim dean. That was really the watershed time about research vs. administration because I knew that although I could continue to publish papers, I could continue to read scientific papers, I couldn't continue to keep a large laboratory going with a lot of students, postdocs, technicians. It was then that some of my very close friends in science said, "Think about how much you enjoyed organizing groups of people to go out and do science." This is really about that. It's about enabling people to do the kind of science that you think is exciting. That's what convinced me to go into administration.

What brought you to NSF?

Rita Colwell, then Director of NSF, called and said, "I want you to take the job as Assistant Director for Geosciences." I really didn't know whether I wanted to do that. I was having a really good time at Rhode Island.

And then Rita said, "Well we've just had a major report from the National Science Board about environment as a whole at NSF, and the need to coordinate across all of the fields at NSF, and I really need somebody to take on that job in addition to the geosciences job." And that was what I was doing at Rhode Island, but now the opportunity was to do it for programs nationally rather than just in Rhode Island. That's what made me decide to come to NSF. It was the opportunity to try to make those connections possible for scientists everywhere in the US.

Was there a big transition between working at the University of Rhode Island and NSF?

It was a very interesting transition because you walk in, and immediately the day after you walk in, you have a full schedule of appointments with other agencies, international appointments, appointments with Congress to talk about what's happening at the Foundation. They can't wait for you to sit around for six months and learn everything that's going on.

I would say the most interesting part that I wasn't involved with before is testifying before Congress. The minute that you become a federal employee, all of that sense of being a valued expert goes out the window. Now Congress really views you as defending turf and just trying to get a bigger share of the budget. That was quite a change to deal with. To go from a situation where the interactions I had were very positive and where they were looking at me as a resource, to a situation where the interaction was really one of trying to manage the scope of what NSF was doing.

As a woman, have you faced any particular challenges in your career?

I think that every woman in oceanography in my generation encountered obstacles. The only question was how severe the obstacles were and whether the obstacles were really of a personal nature, or whether they were more general. You know, institutional boundaries.

I think one challenge that I didn't have to face was the challenge of dealing with an advisor who wasn't paying attention to me because he was paying attention to all of the male students. I didn't encounter that. I had just absolutely wonderful and very supportive advisors. All males, but they were all very supportive. I think that the important thing was that all of them assumed that I would go on, that I would use this degree, that I would be an active scientist. It never occurred to them that I would do anything other than that. So that expectation that you are a colleague in training is very important.

So that role model, whether or not it's a woman or a man, and that mentorship is really important for women.

What are some of the major challenges women entering the field face today?

I think one of the major challenges facing women trying to enter the field as students is that lack of role models. Although I said all of my role models were men when I was in college, I'm very aware of how important it is for women to be role models. As long as our universities have only about ten percent female faculty, women conclude that it must be unusual to be a female scientist, or these people must have had to work much harder than other people. So I think a lack of role models is a very important obstacle.

I think that—and I wouldn't call it an obstacle— but trying to balance family and career is definitely a factor. I even see it in interviews you have in other parts of your web site. Women trying to juggle the responsibilities of family and career. That early childhood period, especially if a woman is tying to nurse her child and play a very active role in early childhood development, is a real challenge. There is no perfect time or right time to have children. And trying to juggle all of that at the same time you are trying to establish a career for yourself is a challenge. It's a challenge for men as well, but I think those early childhood years are a particular challenge for a woman.

At the level of children, we still have a culture where little girls are told that science is hard and that maybe they don't want to think about doing that. Maybe they should think about doing something else. That's a very potent obstacle going on in science in general, no less oceanography.

Where is oceanography heading? What are some of the opportunities out there?

This is a wonderful time for oceanography. Oceanography is in the midst of a revolution. And it's a revolution in our ability to observe and measure the ocean.

Now we are in the midst of a revolution that is being driven by the Internet, connectivity. We have ability to put in place measuring systems which will simultaneously make measurements at many locations in the ocean. Difficult measurements that we can't get from satellites. We have the ability to have all of those data come simultaneously, so that we can see everything at once. We have the ability to have that going on while we are sitting back at the laboratory and looking at the data on the Internet. This will really revolutionize the way we look at the ocean.

A second component of this revolution is in autonomous vehicles. We're now at the point where autonomous vehicles are able to make a wide variety of measurements, are able to navigate to specific places, are able to do surveys of very fine scale even at the seafloor. That means we can start making measurements in difficult places such as under sea ice or places where we really don't want to be such as the northern Atlantic Ocean in the middle of a hurricane.

It will also allow us to do science of the ocean in a way that looks at dynamic processes that are changing with time because we will be able to have those autonomous vehicles out in the ocean for long periods of time. Up until now, 90 percent of our exploration of the ocean was in an expeditionary fashion. We go out on a ship to a particular place for a time that we thought would be the right time for a process, and we study the process for the amount of time that we were out there, work night and day, then we go back home. And who knows what happened the day we left. We have no measurements. We have no context for it. And that helped us understand what processes were taking place. But now we are learning that those processes are evolving with time over seasons, over years,

What advice do you have for women considering a career in oceanography?

My basic advice is to trust yourself. Trust in the dream that you have of being able to do something because the persistence to keep following that path is one of the keys to success. Explore a lot of different ideas. Many of our oceanography curricula tend to want students to go down a fairly narrow path. Just keep on track. I think there is a richness not only in our science that comes from looking at other kinds of ideas, but also as us as scientists. If we're multidimensional people, we bring more to our field. So take the time to explore. Take the time to find all of the things that really interest you about oceanography and ocean science.

What continues to inspire you about your work?

The incredible ideas that people have about the ocean. The aspirations of our field. The scientific ideas and the ambition to get the tools to address those ideas never ceases to amaze me. That creativity is the essence of science just as it's the essence of arts. That's what really inspires me.

What do you like to do in your copious spare time?

In my spare time, what there is of it, I like to cook. I like to eat. That's something you still do almost every day, so it's a good thing to do in my spare time. I love to read. Now that I don't have a lot of time to read, I listen to books on tape. So that's a very important piece of what I do in my spare time. The other is, and something that I'm really enjoying being in Washington, is being able to listen to live music.

Margaret Leinen

  • Assistant Director for Geosciences
  • The National Science Foundation

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