National Ocean Service
NOS Center for Operational Oceanographic
Products and Services (CO-OPS)
Today more people live along U.S. coastlines than ever before and pressure to further develop coastal areas continues. These realities combined with the expected rise in sea level due to climate change add up to a high demand for accurate data on tides, currents, and sea level. Stephen Gill, chief scientist for the NOS Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS), sees that this demand is met. A significant part of his job involves explaining CO-OPS science to general public audiences, the news media, and those who need to interpret and apply oceanographic data to facilitate decision-making.
His educational background includes a B.S. in meteorology and oceanography and an M.S. in physical oceanography from the New York University School of Engineering and Science. He also did one-year of applied research in tides and tidal theory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Prior to coming to NOAA, Gill was an oceanographer for the New York Ocean Science Laboratory in Montauk, N.Y. Gill joined NOAA in 1975.
Why is your work important?
My work is important because I’m foremost a public servant, and it is really important to do the best possible job for the taxpayer. My organization is in the business of providing oceanographic products and services to the public on a 24/7 basis. As a chief scientist, it is important that I ensure our operation is based with the best possible science perspective and that our data are of sustained high quality. There is an implicit trust by the public in our organization’s expertise and ability to provide the highest quality information that must be maintained.
Port operators, emergency preparedness teams, and coastal facilities managers use our data in the short term to ensure efficient port operations, prepare for and respond to storms and tsunamis, and to predict tides and currents. Our data also figure in the calculation of reference points for long-term sea-level change and statistics on extremes.
How do you help wider audiences to understand and appreciate NOAA science?
Over the years, I’ve developed relationships with NOAA Communications and External Affairs and our data user community as a subject matter expert in tides and in sea level change. As such, I am often asked to respond to media inquiries, or to serve on various technical review panels or interagency technical author teams. So my role has two parts: to explain the fundamental science of our work to the general public in understandable language; and to assist users in interpreting and applying our data in meaningful ways for decision-making.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
At this point in my career, I enjoy technical mentoring and teaching the newer employees in our organization the most. I enjoy troubleshooting problems and trying to find “teachable moments.”
Where do you do most of your work?
I work in the NOAA offices in Silver Spring, Md. (Building SSMC IV). I usually travel a few times each year to conferences, meetings, and to provide training. Once each year, I go to an International Hydrographic Organization Tides and Water Levels Working Group Meeting in a foreign country.
What in your office could you not live without?
I could not live without my instant access to our database and vast data holdings and my software tools for retrieving and analyzing the data.
If you could invent any tool to make your work more efficient and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?
It would be nice to have a tool that could automatically ingest and reformat observational water level data from organizations (federal, NGO, academic) external to NOAA and provide standard statistical and analytical outputs from these data. Sustained observational systems are more at risk than ever due to funding cutbacks, so agencies have to be able to leverage each others’ observational programs in an automated manner to perform their basic missions.
When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?
I wasn’t particularly interested in any subject matter until I took an Earth science course as a junior in high school, and that opened my eyes to our planet. I wanted to be a meteorologist at first and switched to oceanography in graduate school.
How did you become interested in communicating about science?
The NOAA Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, where I have worked for my entire career, is involved with operational oceanography, continually collecting and analyzing observations and delivering routine data products and information. There has always been a need to explain and promote our programs to management and to the user community. There has also always been a need to train our users to interpret and apply the data and information that we provide. Good communication skills are essential to meet these needs, and for me, they have evolved over time through research, teaching, mentoring, presenting, and interacting with the media. Communicating is always a skill than can be improved and is more important now than ever when it comes to climate issues.
What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for a young person exploring career options?
Two books that I found particularly exciting as they instill a sense of wonder and draw the reader to care about our planet are:
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina
What part of your job with NOAA did you least expect to be doing?
Worrying about IT security and remembering passwords.
Do you have an outside hobby?
Home carpentry. I like to renovate and improve my homes.
What would you be doing if you were not working for NOAA?
I would be a meteorologist for the news media.
Listen to Steve Gill’s Jan. 5, 2012, appearance on Washington, D.C., public radio station WAMU online. Click the “listen” link in the upper left corner of the page.