After serving four years as the head of the federal agency that tracks atmospheric conditions from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean, Jane Lubchenco has her sights set on home.
In fact, she is expected back in town at 7 tonight at the Whiteside Theatre to be the opening night keynote speaker at the da Vinci Days festival. The free address, “From the Silly to the Sublime: Stories about Science in D.C.,” chronicles some of her experiences as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.
Confirmed as head of NOAA in 2009, Lubchenco said her stint at NOAA coincided with the most
extreme weather of any four years in U.S. history, including 770 tornadoes, six major floods, three tsunamis, 70 Atlantic hurricanes (including Sandy, Isaac and Irene) as well as historic droughts and record snowfalls. Additional challenges included the partisan Congress, the BP oil spill, a weather satellite program in need of revamping and the poor economy.
She left the job in February 2013 and went on sabbatical for a time at Stanford University.
Now the noted marine ecologist and environmental scientist is planning to return to OSU, where she was working before President Obama nominated her for the NOAA appointment.
Lubchenco said was “quite surprised when the president’s team came calling” to offer her the position as the first woman to head NOAA. “It’s hard to say no to the president,” Lubchenco said.
But she said that she grew weary of the 24/7 craziness of Washington, D.C., by the time she stepped down in February.
“I could never, ever turn my phone off,” Lubchenco said. “It’s time to pass the baton.”
Now she and OSU officials are working to define a role for her that best takes advantage of her knowledge and experience.
During a recent trip to California to visit family, she reflected on her time leading an agency that in recent years has become more prominent due to its key role in issuing extreme weather alerts, understanding and tracking climate change, responding to oil spills and managing fisheries.
However lofty and important her role at NOAA, it had its humbling moments, she said. For instance, on her first day at her new office, she opened the bathroom door — and was greeted by the sight of a massive Washington, D.C., rat. She estimated it was 10 inches long, not including the tail. She reasoned that the rat moved in during the five months the office was out of use and found a relatively cozy habitat. She flushed the toilet for a few days before putting the commode to use.
The incident is an example of how Lubchenco’s sense of humor and scientific logic serve her well. She employed both assets to influence policy on matters of marine ecology and environmental issues, particularly those relating to oceans. In fact, Lubchenco considers her crowning achievement at NOAA was focusing attention and action on ocean and atmospheric crises.
For instance, she mentioned turning the corner in educating policymakers about the dangers of overfishing, helping to create the nation’s first National Ocean Policy, putting a critical weather satellite program back on track, increasing timely and accurate forecasts of weather disasters and strengthening science and scientific integrity.
Lubchenco was no stranger to D.C. before she came to work for NOAA; she’d already spent time giving testimony in Congress on such topics.
“I already knew how to swim with the sharks,” Lubchenco said, tongue-in-cheek.