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Women in STEM: stories of Resilience, Spirit and Success

In part one of our Women in STEM series we met Christina, Lola, Erika and Eva, all doing outstanding work around the globe. In part II, we met Laura, Nikita, Erin and a more in-depth look at Christina’s work. In our final installment we’ll introduce you to Captain Michelle Finn, NOAA (retired).

Science and technology have been a focus of my life for as long as I can remember. I was fortunate to have teachers in high school that identified my aptitude, a father who refused to allow me to pursue any subject matter that was easy for me, and a desire to get out and explore the world.

When faced with decisions about where to go to college, what to study, and essentially what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I had no idea how to make them. No one told me that you could adapt and change course throughout your life and that those decisions were not final. I knew I was going to pursue science, and I wanted to live by a body of water. So, I confidently stated that I wanted to study marine biology at Texas A&M at Galveston, but I really was not so confident.

I took full advantage of my time on the Gulf Coast of the United States by participating in the sailing team. I took jobs that allowed me to have fun and learn more about my field.  At the same time, I formed relationships with professors and students. I found out later that this is a very important skill.  After three and a half years, I was preparing for graduation with a B+ grade point average.  Once again, I was faced with decisions about what to do next. And once again, I had no idea how I was going to make those decisions. I had two criteria for my first job out of college: 1) I wanted to travel and continue to learn and 2) I needed to start making decent money.  I interviewed for every job I could find, especially with company recruiters that came to my college. Then one day, a recruiter changed my life.

I learned about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). Wait! What is THAT?  The NOAA Corps is one of the nation’s seven uniformed services that traces its roots to the former US Coast and Geodetic Survey, dating back to 1807 and President Thomas Jefferson. I wanted to join the select cadre of professionals trained in engineering, earth sciences, oceanography, meteorology, fisheries science, and other related disciplines. Here is what really grabbed my interest: Corps officers operate ships, fly aircraft, manage research projects and conduct scuba diving operations. Drive ships! Fly airplanes! Scuba Diving! I was SO in!

I applied, but I was not selected as a primary candidate. I was really disappointed about being a back-up, second-choice. Still, I did everything they asked me to do, so I could be ready to go if they called upon me. At the same time, I had to finish my last semester of school and find a job. I kept in touch with the recruiters, almost begging them to put me at the top of the second-choice list. Graduation came and went, and I was still second-choice. I was hired to start another fun short-term job and I had my car all packed up to head to it, when I got the call. If I could be ready to go to basic training in less than two weeks, I had my chance to be a NOAA Corps officer. I was so happy and so ready!

Two weeks later, I was sitting in a room with twenty-three other officer candidates, ready to learn how to drive ships, support scientific researchers, and be an officer. Five-and-a-half months later, I was assigned to a 133-foot coastal research vessel as a deck officer. For two years, I worked with the very best group of fellow officers, crew members and researchers studying every bay, every estuary, and every mile of coastline from the tip of Maine to the border of Texas and Mexico. My Commanding Officer taught me to expertly operate the ship in very confined areas, with many other boats and ships around and with gear hanging over the side. First, I became a NOAA working diver and then a NOAA divemaster. My experience during this assignment gave my reputation for reliability, competence, and grit a big boost. I spent two full years with the best professional role models. Then, thanks to the advice of my senior officers, I was selected to fill a scientific operations position in Hawaii.

In Hawaii, I supported groups of scientists studying endangered species, specifically the Hawaiian monk seal and sea turtles. I traveled to all the islands and atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. There were ships, small boats, aircraft, and we were diving and camping in remote areas! I not only learned about marine mammal and sea turtle biology, but I also became really good at operating and maintaining long range communications equipment, solar panel systems, gas generators, small boat engines and a variety of field sampling equipment. At the same time, I took advantage of my proximity to the University of Hawaii, and my relationships with professors, to obtain a master of science degree in Zoology. I spent almost four years doing all of this.

So how could it get any better than a cool coastal ship and a long tour in Hawaii? Flight school! The NOAA Corps sent me to flight school. I think I was selected because I had taken the initiative to obtain an advanced degree, while working full time job with overtime, and because they needed competent women to join the program. I was not the first female aviator for NOAA, but there had not been that many before me, and there was not a big influx for two decades after I joined. I learned to fly so I could support scientists conduct airborne research. During the first five years after my initial flight training, I flew a De Havilland Twin Otter for marine mammal surveys, blue fin tuna population surveys, air pollution studies, coastal mapping surveys, and a couple of really cool satellite verification projects. Twin Otters are used for many NOAA missions, because they can be operated safely at low altitudes and airspeeds and are very maneuverable. This makes visual observations and sensor data acquisition easier. I was the first female to fly NOAA Twin Otters as the boss of the airplane (Aircraft Commander). The Twin Otter took me to almost every state in the mainland United States and up to Alaska.

After this first flight assignment, I was sent to Monterey, California, to be the Assistant Superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Wait. What is a sanctuary? Marine Sanctuaries are protected areas of coastal and offshore waters. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is located along the central coast of California and encompasses a huge area, including pristine beaches, jewel-like tide pools, lush kelp forests, steep underwater canyons, and an offshore seamount. The sanctuary teems with life from small invertebrates to giant blue whales. My job was to promote environmental protection, stewardship, and ocean research. This is done by coastal and open ocean resource protection, education, outreach, and research programs. It takes a large team of people, working with a variety of different partners, to keep this running smoothly.

The coastal and open ocean resource protection problems ranged from pollution and coastal development (e.g., constructing buildings and homes on and near water ways) to wildlife or ecosystem disturbance. Knowing that people have many uses for the marine environment along its long coastline, we try to reduce or prevent negative human impacts by working with other protection groups, within laws, and permits, responding in cases of emergencies, enforcement, and education.

Our research, monitoring and conservation programs test the status and health of marine species, habitats and ecosystems. This provides critical data to resource managers and allows us to work together with a wide range of world-class research institutions. Education and outreach efforts promote understanding, support, and participation in the protection and conservation of the sanctuary. We enhance understanding and stewardship of this national treasure through sanctuary visitor centers, public events, volunteer and teacher education programs, among others. Building partnerships and strong public involvement is a key element in all of these efforts. I moved around every few years and always took on new jobs. In some cases, I was the very first person to do the job. In other cases, I was the very first female to do the job.  

After Monterey, I went back to flying to became NOAA’s first female hurricane hunter pilot. I learned to fly the Gulfstream IV to help hurricane forecasters provide guidance on storm track and intensity. I was the first female in charge of the Aircraft Maintenance Branch and the Aircraft Operations Division. The Aircraft Maintenance Branch manages all aircraft maintenance, preventive and unscheduled. Without maintenance, the airplanes cannot safely or legally be flown. The Operations Branch manages all logistics requirements for aircrafts: pilot training, mechanic training, staffing, strategy and budget planning and execution. It also included a lot of boring, but necessary things to keep the aircraft flying, to keep the US politicians happy and keep people safe.

I retired from the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps after twenty-five years of service as a Captain where I was responsible for guiding the development of officers. After retiring from NOAA, I missed certain things. I missed working with younger officers to help them reach their goals and maximize their potential.  I missed helping very intelligent people solve science, technology, and policy problems facing our planet. So, I started my own business to help companies and non-profit organizations obtain the funding and talent to perform research and provide services to the public.

What stayed the same throughout my career, and what changed from my first sea assignment to my current leadership position? (1) My first Commanding Officer instilled a sense of responsibility of taking care of others, especially those people with less power or who might be struggling. “We are only as strong as the weakest member of our team.” (2) I never felt really confident taking on a new role, but I did start feeling more comfortable each time I did so. Pushing the boundaries of my comfort levels was critical to my growth. It was super great when I believed in myself immediately. If I did not, I faked it and sought out people who could help me. (3) I always volunteered for new things, even if I did not know all of the details. My ability to prepare mentally, physically, to the best of my ability, to adapt to changing circumstances, and make decisions with incomplete information helped me greatly. (4) I started my career wanting to have fun.  I ended my career wanting to continue to make a difference. (5) Things were rarely easy. (6) Persevering was always worth it.

If you are reading this, I wish you the very best of luck on your journey. Whatever you do in your life, make sure to appreciate the people around you…even the ones who do not support you. All input – the positive and negative – can be used to make you stronger, better and more resilient. I try to be the person who is the positive force in the lives of others. That also makes YOU stronger and better.

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