Packing for the first day of classes: pencils, check; notepad, check; T-N-T, check.
“The trick was to get the job done without blowing [a] bulldozer to smithereens,” recalls Marcia Kemper McNutt of a particular grad school assignment. “Because my instructor was a cigarette smoker, I shaped my charge so that the piece that blew out was shaped like an ashtray with a sketch of a seal and the date etched into the bottom. I got an A.”
Getting an A, yes, that’s what this first year Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego graduate student was concerned about. But she returned to her earth sciences and geophysics program with high marks from the Navy Seal demolition-training course, she returned with a new image.
“In the eyes of my fellow students [I had changed] from a little blond co-ed to a Navy special forces-trained soldier.”
So what’s this Navy Seal-certified underwater explosives expert up to now? Running the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), that’s what.
Appointed in 2009 by President Obama as the first female head of the USGS, McNutt has accepted the role of civil servant, and is ready to brave the often-murky waters of our nation’s capital.
“I want to raise the profile of USGS science in federal decision-making and I hope to build the budget to a healthier level.”
The USGS is the agency we look to for stewardship of our natural resources. It’s where we turn for answers if a volcano erupts or the earth quakes. This wide-ranging science organization is dedicated to studying timely issues affecting the natural world.
What other hurdles does this firecracker hope to tackle in Washington D.C.? How about rejuvenating and expanding the racial make-up of the USGS workforce, making the institution representative of our national population? And contrary to what one might expect from a federal executive - McNutt wants to make the USGS less bureaucratic and its management more responsive to science objectives. Lofty aspirations, no doubt, but certainly attainable for this highly decorated scientist and administrator.
Spending nearly two decades in research and teaching before taking the helm of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in 1997, McNutt brings the perfect blend of scientific expertise and leadership experience to her new post. Long hours, mountains of paperwork, and then there’s all that bureaucratic red tape to cut through. No problem, she says. Armed with optimism and a can-do attitude, are there any down sides to the new job?
“I really miss the thrill of my own scientific discovery,” she said. “I’ve had to learn to live vicariously through all of the great work of the many scientists and engineers [I work with].”
Asking McNutt what her greatest contribution to science has been, she doesn’t talk about her superswell hypothesis which explained disparate geologic anomalies of the south-central Pacific or her gravity-field research elucidating the mechanical behavior of both continental and oceanic plates. Not even her explosive stint as a Navy demolition diver. No, she speaks of Carolyn and Sarah, Kelsey and Garrett, Karen and Cecily – the men and women she taught who, “have all gone on to have distinguished research and teaching careers and many are now producing their own students.”
Honored by her alma mater in 2004 as an outstanding alumna, McNutt places great importance on nurturing students early in their academic careers. When speaking of her own advisors at Scripps, she remarks at how fortunate she was to have “two very engaged, but very different, mentors.” Robert Parker had an infectious love of science and, “nurtured the rigorous, intellectual side of my approach to science.” Her other advisor, Bill Menard, was a more informal advisor who taught her to “keep an open mind and let the data tell their own story. He taught me that you should never be ashamed to change your mind scientifically as new evidence comes to light.”
This will be an important message for McNutt to bring to Washington. That, and how to safely handle explosive material.
- Wendy Hunter Barker