December 4, 2005Her job: Environmental Engineer, University of Maryland
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
I currently hold the title “Distinguished University Professor” in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland, which I chaired before. Before coming to Maryland, I had an endowed chair (Robert E. Lowry Chair in Meteorology) at the University of Oklahoma (1998-1999).
From 1987-1997 I was Director of the Environmental Modeling Center of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) in Camp Springs, Md. All the computer models for the National Weather Service and private forecasts are generated at this center. During my tenure there we improved the quality of national weather forecasts: currently a 3-day forecast is as accurate (on the average) as a 1-day forecast was 20 years ago! From 1979 to 1986 I was a Senior Scientist and then Branch Head at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Why did you choose engineering?
I got my start in meteorology in an unusual way: my mother changed my major from physics to meteorology because she found there were scholarships available.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I got my undergraduate degree at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and my Ph.D. at MIT (where I was the first woman to get a doctorate in Meteorology, and the first student to get pregnant!).
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
Meteorology is applied physics/engineering. My specialty, numerical weather prediction (the computer modeling of the atmosphere), allows me to work in science and to do something useful to mankind at the same time. Another area of research in atmospheric sciences that I work on, perhaps even more important for mankind, is studying climate change and providing guidance on what we can do to avoid a disaster for our children and grandchildren.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
I am proud that during my career I have nurtured many young scientists, both men and women that have moved on to great careers of their own. I have found that encouragement and enthusiasm for other people's achievements, which doesn't cost any money, goes a long way in making organizations better.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
Perhaps the most challenging problem I faced was when I became Branch Head at NASA/Goddard, and I had to lead a bunch of very strong, male scientists. I had to develop a style of management based on consensus, very different from my predecessor who was much more autocratic. But, to my surprise, it worked very well, and I have used consensus ever since. Another challenging problem was to be the director of about 70 scientists at NCEP and to find the time to continue doing productive research. I feel that I have achieved a lot at NASA and especially at NCEP.
Please tell us a little about your family.
I think that I have been lucky in having a strong, secure husband, who was supportive and encourages me to take risks and face challenges. Having a child has also been a major source of joy (and occasional despair). I felt guilty sometimes for not ever being a full-time mother, but overall I think it has been better for my son to have a happy, satisfied part-time mother.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
For the rest of my career, I would like to contribute to the quality of education at the University of Maryland - and to continue doing research, which is essential for my own happiness.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
My mother was very important to my career and research: she wanted me to be a scholar and put me through school (my father died when I was 14). My undergraduate major professor in Buenos Aires, Rolando Garcia, had a tremendous influence on me, and he contacted Professor Jule G. Charney, from MIT, who kindly offered me a research assistantship, and became my major professor for my PhD. It is impossible to underestimate the influence that they had on me.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
I would suggest that any young woman interested in engineering should acquire a strong background in sciences, math, computer science and physics. But most importantly, you should work in areas that you enjoy. I think money and recognition are of secondary importance, and they will come on their own if you like what you are doing. I would also mention that you have to train yourself to speak clearly and forcefully, and - without being pushy - not allow yourself to be shut off or be excessively modest.