Lauren Childs-Gleason, National Operations Lead for the NASA DEVELOP National Program
DEVELOP, part of the NASA Applied Sciences’ Capacity Building Program, seeks to address environmental and public policy issues through interdisciplinary research projects that apply the lens of NASA Earth observations to community concerns around the globe. These projects place participants (students, recent graduates, and early and transitioning career professionals) on teams to conduct feasibility projects that collaborate with organizations to integrate remote sensing data into their decision-making processes. The program currently has 12 offices around the country where DEVELOP rapidly builds capacity to use remote sensing and NASA’s Earth-observing satellite data in both the participants and partners during three 10-week terms (spring, summer, and fall) each year.
Describe what it means to be a National Operations Lead for the NASA DEVELOP National Program. For example, what does an average day’s schedule consist of? What are some daily versus general responsibilities? What does your work environment look like?
Every day as the National Operations Lead at DEVELOP is a little different.
At a high level, the position entails working closely with the DEVELOP National Program Office and our 12 locations around the country to ensure that we successfully pursue our mission to integrate NASA Earth observations into global decision making.
That means I work closely with our leads and advisors at each location to ensure they have the resources and information they need to engage with participants and partner organizations and conduct projects that apply NASA Earth observations to environmental concerns. I support and lead our Fellow Class, advancing their initiatives, and lead professional development activities. I also engage closely with NASA’s Applied Sciences and Capacity Building programs to ensure that DEVELOP is strategically aligned with their activities and meeting metrics.
Communication, connections, and logistics are a really big part of what I do. Day to day I am in meetings or on telephone and video conferences coordinating activities and projects, making connections between potential partners and DEVELOP teams, and sorting out logistics for each of our terms and projects behind the scenes.
I often represent DEVELOP at conferences and meetings to promote our feasibility projects, raise awareness of NASA Earth observations’ utility, and recruit both the individuals that participate in the program and the institutions that partner with our project teams.
Our program is inherently fast paced. We run three 10-week terms per year, with 80–90 projects taking place over the course of the year. Condensing a research project down to a 10-week timeline is challenging and exciting. To be successful, we have to be nimble and organized, tap our team’s strengths, and really pour ourselves into troubleshooting when an obstacle occurs. And obstacles always occur, which is fun! I love what I do and the opportunity it provides me to work with amazing people, be challenged daily, and develop my skill sets.
What is the most difficult aspect in your current position, and how do you handle those situations when they arise?
It can be very challenging to balance the fast paced nature and demands of a specific term with the follow-up required for the previous term and the planning and preparation for future terms. Being organized, clearly delineating roles and responsibilities, and collaborating are the solutions. I have learned throughout my time at DEVELOP that flexibility and teamwork are the keys to success!
Have you experienced hurdles being a woman who studied and now works in the STEM field, a primarily male dominated sector? If so, what advice would you give other students and professionals who face similar difficulties?
I am fortunate that I have been supported throughout my education and career by both male and female mentors. I began my undergraduate degree at California State University, Long Beach as a political science major, but I quickly realized it wasn’t the path for me. I was inspired by the chair of the geography department (a woman) and urged by my biogeography professor (a man) to switch majors. There were many amazing female professors in the department, and so I actually didn’t realize at that time the field was male dominated, but during my graduate studies the department was almost entirely male and when I began with DEVELOP at Stennis Space Center the majority of scientists around me were male. So I began to see the imbalance in the workplace around me.
While I haven’t personally experienced obvious sexism, I have come to realize that being a mother adds a level of complexity to your career. Parenthood is amazing, but realistically it can be limiting when it comes to scheduling, travel, being able to respond to emergencies (at both work and home), and being able to accept new opportunities. I found that I had to reassess many of my work habits and goals to ensure an appropriate work–life balance. My advice is to build your support network both at home and in the office to ensure that tasks are completed, things flow smoothly, and your sanity is maintained.
Pursuing a master’s in geography from the University of New Orleans in the midst of Hurricane Katrina recovery must have been very eye-opening. Was there a specific moment or event, either during graduate school or earlier in life, that became a catalyst for your career in outreach and applied science?
Living in New Orleans during its recovery from Hurricane Katrina was surreal. It was an incredible experience to participate in the rebuilding of a city and observe and participate in a community trying to maintain its culture yet accept and embrace change.
Growing up in Southern California, I experienced multiple large earthquakes, years of drought, El Niño events, and wildfires firsthand that definitely piqued an interest in the geography of hazards. When I moved to New Orleans for graduate school I had five days of classes and then had to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina. Hurricanes were new to me, so I didn’t know what to expect, but that experience reinvigorated my interest in disaster management. It also became the focus for many of our projects at DEVELOP in my early days with Stennis. We focused on applying NASA satellite and airborne imagery to assess different facets of the destruction and disturbance caused in the Southeast.
I have always loved geography and learning about the Earth, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that. When I was introduced to DEVELOP and NASA’s Applied Sciences, that was the “aha” moment for me, when I realized that this was where I was meant to be. I have always loved organizing and coordinating action, so being able to combine that with my love of geography and impacting the world around us is extremely fulfilling.
As advice to students or early-career professionals, what was the most integral decision (professional or educational) you made toward advancing your career?
Now that I can step back and look at the beginning of my career and analyze it a bit, I think the pivot points that advanced my career were when I stepped out of my comfort zone and took a risk. You can plan and do your research, but inevitably some decisions must be made without knowing every detail. It can be challenging, but you need to flip your mindset, accept uncertainty, and when faced with obstacles or adversity, see it as an opportunity. Mistakes and failures can be wonderful learning experiences and set you on a new path to a future you haven’t yet envisioned.
For me, the integral decision was moving to New Orleans for graduate school. It wasn’t the easiest option, but it was one that made all the difference in putting me on my path. Embrace challenges, try new things, and you will end up where you are supposed to be.
What are the top five skills you rely on in order to succeed in your current role?
At DEVELOP there is always a lot going on, so I find that the skills I rely on the most and continually work to improve are those of organization, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, and delegation.
Staying organized and managing my time efficiently enable me to accomplish many tasks to support others and drive the program forward. I am bothered by inefficiency and try to streamline and expedite things whenever possible. I find that the ability to quickly solve problems, find solutions, and make decisions is critical in my position. When you’re condensing the scientific process down to 10 weeks, time doesn’t allow for long delays when an issue arises. I strive to identify solutions that are innovative, resourceful, and have the beauty of simplicity.
DEVELOP has a culture of collaboration. We thrive in team situations, and this makes it fun and improves quality through the integration of multiple viewpoints. We endeavor to work with others to identify their strengths and weaknesses, help them improve and grow, and set them up to successfully contribute to the team.
Delegation is critical when so much needs to be accomplished. You must trust others to take on the tasks and bring them to fruition, accept that they may go about it differently than you would have, and ensure they have the information and support needed to accomplish the task.
Twitter challenge: In 140 characters or less, describe the most rewarding part of your job.
Having a hand in the professional and personal development of others is amazing!
What was the last science joke you heard?
Which has the higher IQ, latitude or longitude? Longitude—it’s got 360 degrees!
What time do astronauts eat? At launch time.
Where do astronauts go to grab a drink? At the spacebar!
How do you organize a space party? You planet!