Marlene Kaplan

Sector: Government

Field: Science

Occupation: Executive

Meet Marlene Kaplan, Deputy Undersecretary for Operations, NOAA (click here for full audio interview)

Tell me your earliest memory of being interested in science.

I was always good at math and grew up in Los Angeles near the ocean.  So it is fitting that I ended up at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) working on a variety of ocean policy issues.


Explain the steps you took to have a career path in academia or research.

It was not a direct path.  After completing an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, I knew I did not want to work in academia or a laboratory.  I found a program at UCLA in Environmental Science whose graduates worked in the public and private sectors.  The program required an internship instead of a research dissertation.  Since I had been in LA most of my life, I decided to come to Washington, DC, where several program participants had gone.  I was only expecting to stay a couple years to complete my internship, but got caught up in National policy and stayed for 35 years.

What were some challenges or obstacles you had to overcome to pursue your career choices?

The biggest challenge or possibly opportunity was to figure out what I was really good at and to do that.  I was fortunate to find many opportunities and experiences in the public sector that suited my skills and interests.

What skills and knowledge, technical or non-technical, do you use in your work?

A strong background in math and science has been very useful. Soft skills are also important. Developing relationships and working on teams are very useful skills.

Describe the most exciting part of your research or teaching.

I am excited to be work as part of a network to increase participation in STEM and build a future workforce.  The network includes colleagues from other Federal agencies, as well as academia, professional societies and the private sector.   I also enjoy trying new approaches to recruiting underrepresented students to NOAA scholarship programs, then looking to see if they had an effect on our applicant pool. In the past 5 years, I began collecting data and conducting studies on NOAA’s undergraduate and graduate education programs.  The results are so interesting and useful to managing programs.

Describe the most discouraging part of your research or teaching and how do you overcome this limitation.

Working for a large bureaucracy can be frustrating at times.  There are often many levels of review to move an idea forward.  Understanding how the system works and building in the extra time needed can help to overcome these challenges are critical to succeeding.

What is something you wish you had known earlier in your career? What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

You don’t have to have it all figured out by the time you graduate.  There are many wonderful opportunities out there in a variety of STEM-based fields that are not just research.  Your career can evolve over time as you find things you are interested in. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.  Early in my career, I told my boss I wanted to work on Capitol Hill and was planning to look for a job there when I completed my degree.  He responded with, “I will loan you there.”  So I worked for over two years for a U.S. Senator on ocean policy issues.  This led to a position back at NOAA in the Legislative Affairs office, where I rose to be the Deputy Director.  After 10 years in that office, I was ready to move.  An opportunity to set up an Office of Education opened up and I moved into education.   Relationships are important.  I have moved through several jobs and opportunities at NOAA.  Not once did I apply for a position.  Someone in leadership helped me move from one position to another.  Pay attention to the career components you are good at and interested in.  Do those.  I am a good strategist.  I understand how things work and can use this to promote the programs I am working on.  On the other side, I hate report writing so I stay away from anything that would require extensive writing.  I am still finding new things I enjoy doing.  In the past few years I have had the opportunity to mentor more students and early career professionals through professional societies like AGU.   I really enjoy helping others who are just starting out.