Oceanography is a field that offers diverse career opportunities from education and research to industry and government. Someone who can attest to the possibilities of a career in science is Rear Admiral Brian Brown, U.S. Navy, alumnus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.
After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1986 with a degree in oceanography, Brown attended Scripps Oceanography and graduated in 1987 with a master’s degree in oceanography. He later received an additional master’s degree in meteorology and physical oceanography from the Naval Postgraduate School. Upon commissioning, he initially served as a surface warfare officer and transferred to naval oceanography in 1990. In 2012, he was designated as an Information Warfare Flag Officer.
Brown has spent more than three decades serving in the U.S. Navy, where he has utilized his oceanographic and physical science expertise in roles including commanding officer, Naval Oceanographic Office, commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, and deputy commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, among others.
He currently serves as director, Warfare Integration for Information Warfare, on the Chief of Naval Operations staff. In this role, Brown manages the planning, programming, budgeting, and execution for all information warfare capabilities held by the Navy. In February of 2018, Brown was nominated by President Donald Trump to be appointed to the rank of vice admiral and for assignment as commander, Naval Information Forces. He will start this new position in June of 2018.
We caught up with Rear Admiral Brown to discuss his upcoming role, his oceanographic career path with the U.S. Navy, what it’s like to attend a class taught by legendary Scripps Director Roger Revelle, and more.
Q: How did you enter the field of oceanography and get involved with the U.S. Navy?
Brian Brown: My oceanography career started at the U.S. Naval Academy where I was an oceanography major. I wanted to extend what I had learned there and was offered the opportunity to attend Scripps as my first tour in the Navy. With both these experiences, I knew that I wanted to use my science background in the operational Navy to help solve challenges that Mother Nature presents in the maritime environment in terms of operational safety and mission effectiveness.
I started my career in the Navy as a surface warfare officer or SWO. SWOs operate the surface ships in the Navy and ensure safe navigation and effective weapons systems employment. When I was at Scripps, I was actually a surface warfare officer in training. During my first SWO tour and after completing required qualifications, I applied and was accepted for transfer into the Navy’s oceanography career field.
Q: What does your new job as vice admiral and commander of Naval Information Forces entail?
BB: When I head down to Suffolk, Va. in June 2018, I will be responsible for the manning, training, and equipping of the Navy’s information warfare forces, the commands that directly support the Fleet through communications, networks, cyber operations, space operations, information operations, intelligence, and operational oceanography, meteorology and hydrography. My new command is responsible to ensure near-term readiness as well as developing the future force.
Q: How will your new role differ from your current role as director, Warfare Integration for Information Warfare?
BB: My current job looks out into the future to plan, program, and budget information warfare capabilities for the Fleet; our time horizon is two to seven years out. We serve as both resource and requirements sponsors and take Fleet operational needs, turn them into acquisition requirements, fund acquisitions, and provide oversight on delivery of capabilities/systems.
My new position will implement the capabilities my current organization provides. This includes personnel training and tactics development, with a time horizon focused more on current operations and near-term readiness. It’s a great follow-on to my current position; I'll be able to better shape what's happening in the near term through my relationship with my current team shaping the long-term.
Q: What are you most looking forward to in your new position?
BB: While I love my job here, I’m looking forward to the change. In my new role, I’ll be closer to the fleet and operations, which I really enjoy. I’ll also have more interaction with junior personnel, both officer and enlisted. You really get energized working with the talent we have in our junior ranks—they keep you young!
Q: What initially sparked your interest in science and oceanography?
BB: I think it all started in 1974. My father was in the Navy and received orders for an assignment on Guam. So, at age nine, I moved to a small island in the Pacific Ocean. We lived right up the street from a beach called Gab Gab that boasted a tremendous reef full of sea life and color. My dad had always had aquariums, and after we arrived, he bought a 50-gallon saltwater tank and we filled it with sea life we caught at Gab Gab. This experience, heavily reinforced by the era of Jacques Cousteau on television, planted the seed of a potential career in marine biology and oceanography.
Q: How did you become interested in attending the U.S. Naval Academy?
BB: With my dad’s Navy career, we lived in a couple other places before I graduated high school, and I stayed very much on an accelerated math and science track in my studies. In ninth grade, my dad took me to a college fair at my high school, and that’s where I first was exposed to the Naval Academy. In eleventh grade, we moved to a base about 60 miles south of Annapolis, and I visited the Naval Academy for the first time. By twelfth grade, I had pretty much decided that's where I wanted to go. I was lucky enough to get in and they had a very strong physical oceanography curriculum.
Q: What’s your most memorable experience from your Scripps days?
BB: I took a really cool class on ocean policy that was taught by Roger Revelle. He was a big man, but he talked really quietly. I used to get to class early so I could sit close to him. It was a fascinating class about the Law of the Sea Treaty. Another fond memory involved [Scripps oceanographer] Walter Munk, who used to come to our postdoc lectures every Thursday. Interacting with these pioneers of oceanography on campus made my time there really special.
Q: In what ways did your experience at Scripps help shape your career?
BB: My initial position in the naval oceanography community was accelerated because I had gone to Scripps. When I was negotiating my first assignment following my transfer to the community, I thought I was going to be started at something more entry level. However, after talking to my assignment officers, they noted my advanced degree and decided to put me in a more “graduate level” position. I soon found myself alone and unafraid, doing some very heavy acoustics work with a destroyer squadron that was focused on anti-submarine warfare and was the “theater” expert in these operations. I had gone from zero to 90 in my oceanography career. My time at Scripps prepared me well to excel in this position, and I had the time of my life chasing submarines around the Pacific for a couple years!
Q: Was it nerve-wracking to jump into such an important role as the sole expert?
BB: It’s like anything else—you’ve just got to learn it and do it. I believe the way scientists are taught to think through science programs really shape the way you think about all challenges. I see it in my fellow Navy oceanographers every day, and you can see it in folks like Tim Gallaudet [fellow Scripps alumnus, retired Navy Rear Admiral and oceanographer, and now Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere at NOAA], who is a great example. Naval oceanographers represent some of the most versatile officers and problem solvers in the Navy. My experiences in graduate school, both Scripps and the Naval Postgraduate School, really shaped me and taught me to think differently and more analytically.
Q: Was it hard to raise a family while moving frequently for the U.S. Navy?
BB: Overall, it’s been a manageable thing for my family, but it's not always the easiest lifestyle and it's not for everyone. I owe a lot of credit to my wife who put her career on hold during my children's formative years so that I could pursue what I was doing. My kids have been great as well; they have always been supportive of our moves and my time away from home.
While I have been on long deployments and have spent a couple years geographically separated from my family throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have spent significant periods of time with them, in many ways more than some other Navy career fields. For the family, despite these hardships, there was always opportunity. My family has seen the world and places that most people don't get to visit. They’ve lived overseas and all over the United States. My children have seen and experienced things that have made them better adults. It’s a give-and-take.
Q: What advice would you give to students looking to pursue careers in oceanography or the Navy?
BB: The biggest piece of advice is to never stop learning. The world is a fascinating place. There are always things to read, listen to, and learn. Talk to people. Keep that spark of curiosity alive. That's why I think most folks go to Scripps, right? It's scientific curiosity; it’s chasing puzzles and challenges. If you keep yourself challenged and you keep looking ahead, I think things fall into place a lot easier.
I would also tell students to accept that life is full of peaks and valleys, and whenever it seems like you're down, that’s precisely the time you’ve got to seek out opportunities because in every challenge you can find them. It’s hard when you're young to see that every bump in the road always leads to an opportunity to rise up even higher if you look for it.
Another piece of advice I would offer is “Don't think you know where you’re going to be in 20 or 30 years.” There's no way to do it. Life will take you on a good ride if you let it. If you apply common sense and a good work ethic and a desire to keep learning and follow opportunities, you're probably going to end up someplace you didn't expect to be, but your life will be lot better for it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
– Brittany Hook