New Director of Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center
On January 9, 2017, Guy Gelfenbaum took over as director of the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center in Santa Cruz and Menlo Park, California. Gelfenbaum replaced Robert (Bob) Rosenbauer, who led the center for more than six years until his retirement.
Gelfenbaum went to high school in the Midwest, playing water polo with a team that won the state championship. During his undergraduate geology and geophysics studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he got a summer job with an oceanographer working on Lake Michigan.
Gelfenbaum pursued his master’s degree at the University of Washington (UW), studying the Columbia River estuary. He stayed at UW for his Ph.D. thesis on the fluid mechanics of turbidity currents—which contains pages and pages of equations “that I couldn’t even pretend to understand now,” he says.
A chance encounter with USGS researchers during a fun run at a conference led to a 1989 post-doc position, working on Monterey Canyon sediments offshore of California. Gelfenbaum’s next move took him to a permanent position at the USGS science center in St. Petersburg, Florida, for nine years, studying hydrodynamics and sediment transport in Mobile Bay, Alabama, and other locations.
Then the State of Washington contacted the USGS about starting a coastal erosion study. Gelfenbaum’s master’s degree work there led to a multi-year partnership—and another cross-country move back to what is now the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.
Since then, Gelfenbaum has led many successful multi-partner research projects. Those include: a long-running collaboration with the Deltares Research Institute for computer modeling of ocean currents and sediment transport; investigating tsunami deposits to characterize coastal hazards; measuring and computer modeling sediment transport in estuaries to improve estuarine health and protect coastal communities; and a large project in Puget Sound, Washington, supporting decision makers for restoration and recovery of ecosystems.
In the first edited interview, Gelfenbaum details his early days as Science Center Director, and part of his vision for the future. Then Mark Sogge, Gelfenbaum’s supervisor as the USGS Pacific Region Director, describes the importance of selecting excellent science center directors.
Why did you apply for the center director job?
I’ve felt for a long time that this is something that I would be willing to do, and I thought I could do a good job. I’ve thought a lot about strategic planning and science leadership. There were certain aspects to the leadership that I brought to [research] projects that would be useful, in terms of understanding partner needs.
How’s it going so far?
There’s an enormous amount of things that come to the center director’s desk: interacting with the USGS programs and mission areas, interacting with the region, interacting with the management staff, IT, admin, outreach, and our marine facility. And all the budgeting and personnel issues.
On top of that, we have a change of [presidential] administration. There’s a lot of data calls, a lot of requests for information on the science that we do and the priorities and how much things cost.
Do you plan on any changes in direction for the science center?
I did not feel like this team needed an overhaul by any means. What I’ll start off doing is looking at those opportunities that are coming down the road.
For example, there is an effort to bring together many different programs from the USGS to work together on subduction zones. The USGS is responsible for the subduction zones in the Aleutian Islands, Cascadia, and the Caribbean. There’s a real lack of basic information in terms of how often they rupture, and how long are the faults.
Other areas potentially include more work in the Arctic associated with coastal change.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
I’m very thankful that I get to commute to and from work on my bicycle, and so I can enjoy the beauty of the ride to the office and enjoy the fact that we live here in Santa Cruz. I play soccer once or twice a week, and I still love to go snowboarding.
I think the most important thing is that we have a great staff—from science support, to our senior researchers, to all our management teams for all the different groups. I’m really proud of what people do and the high level of motivation. I feel fortunate to be able to help lead a team that’s so productive.
Mark Sogge is director of the USGS Pacific Region, responsible for nine science centers in California, Nevada, Hawaiʻi, and other Pacific islands.
Why is hiring a science center director so critical?
Because a science center is where the rubber meets the road, in terms of accomplishing our mission. On top of that, center director is a very challenging job. They have to meet the expectations of the regional director, the program coordinators, the mission area, reimbursable partners, and their own employees.
We did a survey of about 40 new science center directors a couple of years ago. When we asked what USGS job they found the most challenging, the majority of them identified center director. Interestingly, when asked what they considered their most enjoyable role in USGS, most again said center director.
Describe the recruitment and selection process for a science center director.
I’ve always felt it very worthwhile to take the time needed to get as many good candidates as you can to apply. You want to end up getting the absolute best person that you can sitting in that chair.
We did an advertisement through USAJOBS, putting out recruitment notices by email, and we had people beating the bushes to make sure that pools of people were aware of the recruitment. After reviewing a couple dozen applications and selecting the top group, the first panel went through an initial phone interview. Then they made recommendations on who to bring forward for face-to-face interviews.
We also had a second panel for those interviews, and a candidate seminar that everyone was invited to. That provides a chance to see how people present to a group, and how they connect with a larger group of people.
We also have the feedback panels, which are an opportunity for the candidate to interact with some of the employees from the center. The feedback panels do not rank candidates, they do not make recommendations on who to hire. They are literally just an opportunity to interact with the person, for the person to ask questions about the job, and for the panelists to give me feedback on their experience.
Then I have a one-on-one interview and conversation with each candidate, and often another follow-up discussion. Ultimately, as selecting official, I make the final decision.
What are some of the most important attributes you look for?
I won’t go into all of them, but they are things such as communication skills, integrity, the ability to generate a vision, and to make that be a foundation for action. Entrepreneurship, meaning the ability to articulate what is going on within a program or a center, and to be able to pursue new opportunities. Resilience is important, which I see as the ability to stay positive, and keep pushing for things in the face of challenges.
Bob Rosenbauer was center director for about six years. What did you like about working with him?
Bob was upfront, and you didn’t have to wonder what he was thinking. You didn’t have to worry that if he told you one thing he was going to do another. He was very personable, had a huge breadth of experience, a lot of wisdom in how to deal with people, and knew what it takes for a center to operate. Bob had a lot of integrity, was well liked and well respected. Those are great ingredients for the recipe for a successful center.
What are your thoughts on Guy Gelfenbaum as center director?
I’m very excited that Guy accepted this position. He brings a tremendous amount of energy, and he has a breadth of knowledge about the kinds of things that go on in the USGS. Guy has great strength with partners, and with other parts of the organization. I have absolute confidence that Guy is the kind of leader who speaks his mind, and that isn’t afraid to ask hard questions. He also recognizes that sometimes you have to make hard decisions.
What’s your take on the future of the USGS?
The USGS is a very robust organization. We do things that make a difference in so many ways, within the science realm, within the policy realm, and with, literally, people’s lives. What we do matters, and what we do has a constituency, and what we do is valued. The question I have is, “How will we adjust and change to whatever new priorities and funding realities are coming in the future?” I don’t have a crystal ball. I think we stand in a very strong position to do fine, as long as we are willing to be nimble and help people understand the value of what we do.
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