Meet Chelle Gentemann, an expert in remote sensing of sea surface temperature. Chelle is a Senior Principal Scientist at Remote Sensing Systems, a scientific research company in Santa Rosa, California. Chelle’s research has improved the accuracy and availability of data about sea surface temperature and has aided the effectiveness of weather forecasting, operational oceanography, and climate research. AGU awarded Chelle the 2013 Charles S. Falkenberg Award. Chelle has worked with NOAA and NASA teams and National Research Council committees.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?
I don’t think I can remember when I didn’t want to be a scientist! My earliest memories are of going to the Pacific Science Center, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and begging my parents to attend summer math camps. I don’t remember ever questioning what I was going to be, it was going to be a scientist, but I just wasn’t sure what kind of scientist.
What’s the most exciting part of your research?
Starting a new research project is always fun, but it is often the middle of a project that is the most interesting and exciting for me: I start programming in my sleep and rushing to work, because I can tell that I’m getting close to finding something new or gaining a new insight into a problem.
When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?
It is impossible to work in any field and not have off-days, frustrating situations, or wasted time dead-ends. I find that the best way to get back to being productive is to immediately just take a little time off and go do something completely unrelated to work. Then, back at work I try to work on a different project for a while. I’ve slowly learned that taking a small break often makes the difficulties seem surmountable with fresh eyes. A research position can be stressful, constantly applying for grants, trying to balance multiple projects, and encountering unexpected difficulties. Learning how to manage stress has really helped my research and allows me to minimize frustrating situations.
What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been?
Base-camp Everest. Terrible food, amazing location, huge altitude headache. This was my ‘vacation’ after finishing my Ph.D. Apparently the stress had warped my brain and instead of signing on to 5 weeks at a beach, climbing up to base camp seemed like a logical vacation. I’m not even a rock climber or outdoorsy person. I don’t know what I was thinking. 18,000 feet is just not a hospitable environment, but it was amazingly beautiful and peaceful.
What aspect of your research/science would you happily do away with?
Writing proposals for short periods of research. I enjoy writing the proposals, it is always fun to try and think of new directions in research, I just wish that I didn’t have to write so many of them. Now that I have children, I now feel torn in so many directions that it would be nice to get enough funding to just work on 1-2 projects instead of 4-5.
What are the pros and cons to doing research in a scientific research company compared with research in academia?
I work at Remote Sensing Systems, which is a very small (<10 scientist), so it is a little unusual. Working at a small company can have some significant advantages, it is a flexible workplace and there are very few meetings. I started at RSS with only a M.S. and was writing proposals before my classmates had completed their Ph.D. Being able to guide my own research, learn how to write progress reports, meet colleagues, and collaborate on proposals earlier in my career was a distinct advantage. Being at such a small company, I have to make extra effort to develop collaborations with other scientists outside my company and attend conferences to try and gain exposure to the newer research topics. This has become especially difficult once I had children. Academic institutions are always having talks and visiting scientists, making these connections much easier to develop.
How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?
They are always excited to talk about current science issues with me, which I also find interesting.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?
I think it is really important to do an internship at a company or with a professor in the area of research that interests you, before committing to a Ph.D. program. Studying for exams, reading about a topic, is quite different then staring at a blank screen and trying to figure out what to do next, or staring at huge file filled with numbers and trying to figure out how to approach it. Make sure you enjoy the day-to-day aspects of a career.