The Sammies Series: Q&A with BCG and finalist Claire Parkinson
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The Sammies Series: Q&A with BCG and finalist Claire Parkinson

October 26, 2020 | Updated on November 20, 2020

Through four decades at NASA, Claire Parkinson conducted cutting-edge scientific research documenting changes in the ice covers in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans and how they have played a significant role in climate change.

Parkinson, the climate change senior scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, is a 2020 Service to America Medals finalist in the Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement category. Boston Consulting Group’s Brooke Bollyky, managing director and partner, and Troy Thomas, who leads the firm’s space initiative, spoke with Claire Parkinson about her NASA career and the future of her work.

Bollyky: When did you develop an interest in working in Antarctica and how did it lead you to a career in public service?

Parkinson: After college I got to thinking about the Antarctic Treaty, which had been signed when I was in elementary school. This treaty was very appealing to me, because it preserves an entire continent for peaceful purposes only. So I went to the library to find out how I could get to work in Antarctica and found that Ohio State University’s Institute of Polar Studies was heavily involved in Antarctic research. This led to my going to graduate school at Ohio State. At the time, I hadn’t realized that almost no women scientists had ever worked in Antarctica, and I was thrilled when Ohio State did get me there on a field expedition in 1973/74.

Back at Ohio State, I attended a lecture about computer modeling of the atmosphere, and I spoke with the speaker afterwards about how I could get involved in such work. This led me to modeling the sea ice covers of the Arctic and Antarctic, which formed the basis of my Ph.D. dissertation. I presented a talk on this work at a conference in Seattle, and an attendee from NASA approached me after the talk and asked whether I would be interested in working at NASA. It had never occurred to me that I could conceivably work at NASA, but it immediately became my top choice. After finishing my Ph.D., I started work at NASA in July 1978, and I’ve been working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center ever since. I feel incredibly privileged to work at NASA and to be able to serve this country through that work.

Bollyky: You fell into a public service career by following your passion and then someone came to you with an opportunity that you wouldn’t have previously considered. What words of wisdom would you share with people who are trying to figure out their next career steps? Why should they consider a career in public service?

Parkinson: Be open to exciting opportunities and possibilities when they arise. They may be way out of line with what you were thinking, but sometimes life takes strange twists and turns. Pursue what you’re actually interested in, not just what others tell you that you should be interested in. Serving the country through public service can be hugely satisfying, and you can get involved in many different ways. For example, NASA has scientists, engineers, managers, programmers, lawyers, architects, photographers and all sorts of other career options, all of which are essential for the agency to succeed.

Thomas: How can we encourage more diverse groups of people to enter the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields?

Parkinson: Part of the answer lies in elementary, middle and high school. It’s important to let all children realize that they are capable of excelling in any subject and that they should pursue whatever positive, law-abiding interests they have. If they pursue their true interests and get the education they need in those areas, there should be opportunities available to them. I think many agencies in the federal government want a diverse workforce, but in many cases, there remains insufficient inclusion of diverse points of view and diverse personalities. Diversity in a workforce increases the chance of innovative creativity and hence a better workforce, more able to address the diversity of issues that it’s likely to face.

Thomas: What goals do you have for yourself and your program in the years ahead?

Parkinson: I’m really pleased with the opportunities I’ve had at NASA, so I’m now trying to ensure that younger people in the workforce will be able to carry on with these programs in the future – whether it’s the sea ice work that’s been the center of my research for 42 years or other satellite-based work.

Work at NASA and elsewhere is very different now than when I started in the 1970s. Many improvements have been made to create better satellite instruments and to analyze the data more easily. Scientists have computers on their desks that are far more powerful than the huge mainframe computers that we used in the 1970s when we would go to an entirely separate building with tapes of data. This opens up a lot of opportunities for young people to make more progress and better understand our Earth system.

Thomas: One of the reasons that NASA is such an exciting place to work is because you’re at the leading edge of research and development. In your opinion, why is NASA at the top of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings?

Parkinson: I think in part it’s a sense of appreciation for the range of NASA’s work – from the awesomeness of NASA’s deep space studies using such tools as the Hubble Space Telescope to the excitement of human spaceflight and walking on the moon, to all the practical applications and scientific understandings made possible by the work with Earth observations and satellite data. There is also a real sense that NASA employees are a family. We share the terrible disappointments when tragedies occur, but we also share the victories, which fortunately are much more frequent than the failures.

Bollyky: Is there anything else you want to say about the importance of public service?

Parkinson: It is wonderful that the Partnership for Public Service is so keen on highlighting the behind-the-scenes work of the federal government and its value to the public. I feel very honored that I as an Earth scientist am on the list of Sammie finalists along with people who work on infectious diseases, treatments for leukemia and ensuring minority communities have access to credit.

Read Claire Parkinson’s Service to America Medals profile for more on her work at NASA, and visit Boston Consulting Group’s website to learn about the organization’s work.

Join the conversation with #Sammies2020 and follow the Partnership on Twitter @publicservice.

This post is part of a series featuring in-depth interviews with our 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.