Research Physical Scientist, Remote Sensing Researcher and Oceanographer and Great Lakes CoastWatch Node Manager at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (NOAA GLERL)
By Chantel Bivins, WPO Web/Communications Specialist
Andrea Vander Woude, PhD is a satellite oceanographer, data scientist, and geologist. She has been using remote sensing for over 20 years to understand ecological and physical processes in the Great Lakes and within the coastal and Southern Ocean.
In what way did your love for art and art in nature draw you to your current career field?
My love for art in nature was nurtured by my family and extended family. Art and science were highly valued. My maternal grandfather made sculptures and my maternal grandmother loved the natural sciences. My grandfather’s artistic influence is evident in the creative work of my maternal uncle and five aunts. They all use different mediums to represent natural phenomena. As an undergraduate researcher in a geology department, I stumbled upon remote sensing. It was like a light bulb came on. Remote sensing for me was the perfect blend of art and science.
How did you integrate art into science?
I learned how to process images of the Great Lakes, looking at the range of blues and greens of the lakes. That initial foray into remote sensing continues to excite me today. In my current work, I use different types of sensors and cameras and continually look for new creative methods for analyzing and interpreting data.
How did you get where you are today, and who/what helped you along the way?
My first research experience was with Dr. Judith Budd as an undergraduate student at Michigan Technological University. We worked on Lake Erie satellite imagery to look at water clarity. Dr. Budd was supportive of me as a woman in science and listened to what I was going through in male-dominated major. She encouraged me to do graduate work in remote sensing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Dr. Steven Ruberg is my current mentor. He is the Program Lead for the Observing Systems and Technology branch at NOAA GLERL that I work under. He has been my mentor for the past 6 years and I admire his leadership skills as well as his ability to listen to and encourage others.
What did you do prior to your current position?
I was a contractor for Cherokee Nation Businesses for 2 years, Global Sciences and Technology, Inc. for 1 year, and a Postdoctoral Researcher at a Cooperative Institute.
How was the transition? Were there any obstacles?
The transitions among these positions were developmental. In retrospect, each new position contributed new systems for developing the Hyperspectral Program to monitor cyanobacteria harmful algal blooms (cyanoHABs) in the Great Lakes. Interestingly, there were no significant obstacles.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
What I love most about my work at NOAA is that it focuses on providing a solution and service to users, with the outcome of the work directly applied. Furthermore, I enjoy working as part of a synergistic, creative team. Proposing, supporting and then executing cutting-edge ideas for furthering scientific knowledge is exciting. Working with others who sincerely encourage and celebrate accomplishments has been a pleasure.
Describe a typical day for you.
My typical day varies greatly in my new role as new Great Lakes Node Coastwatch Manager. I have frequent meetings with people at NOAA GLERL. I also have meetings with the NASA-led Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) Science Team and as a lead Principal Investigator (PI), I work with the NOAA Alliance for Coastal Technology (ACT- IOOS) coastal hyperspectral remote sensing group.. Under the ACT program, we are evaluating hyperspectral imaging technology and making recommendations to the user community.
During the cyanobacteria harmful algal bloom season (spring-fall), my days are filled with flight planning, installing the hyperspectral camera in the airplane to fly over the drinking water intakes, and then processing the imagery to provide cyanobacteria levels over the drinking water intakes to municipalities. We provide a report every week for the western basin of Lake Erie but we also fly to other areas in the Great Lakes for cyanoHABs and submerged aquatic vegetation. During the off-season when we are not flying, I write grant proposals and papers, put together information collected in the summer to refine algorithms, and look at what new products can be developed.
How do you achieve work-life balance?
I’m a single mom, so that presents a whole different level of challenges with keeping the balance between my family and work. I think I juggle it well most days with everything that is on my plate. It definitely isn’t easy, especially during a pandemic. Hiking, paddling and surfing definitely help to maintain some sanity in my life.
What are some traits that you think great leaders possess?
Communication and honesty are at the top of the list. Also, leaders who are passionate about what they do. I have learned that even in the face of adversity, keeping a positive attitude really helps.
What was the most impactful leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?
Listening to people and finding their strengths is important. For example, one of my colleagues is an avid gardener. Once she became my algae gardener, she thrived! She was excited to monitor the daily changes in different types of algae and their need for nutrients, food, sunlight, and carbon dioxide. Supporting talented people as much as you can, even with a well-defined end goal is critical.
What have you learned about leadership, entrepreneurship and mentoring others?
Everyone has their own gifts. You have to build on their strengths and intentionally listen to others to be a good leader and mentor. It’s important to respond as soon as possible with honesty. Learning how to be a better entrepreneur is one of my current goals. Good science requires adequate resources and those resources need to be managed wisely.
What is your greatest professional and/or personal accomplishment?
I am excited to be in a new position as the Great Lakes CoastWatch Node Manager, looking into the future on how remote sensing of the lakes will evolve and how to best support users.
My greatest personal accomplishment is raising my sons to be inquisitive, creative and kind young men. I love that they have some of the same talents and interests in art and science as me.
What does success mean to you?
I appreciate the sense of community we have within GLERL and NOAA. Being part of a stable professional community that supports you is success. Craig McLean, deputy assistant administrator for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) and RDML Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., USN Ret., Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Deputy NOAA Administrator, are very supportive. It is wonderful to have recognition for hard work from multiple levels, now as federal principal investigator and in the past as a contractor.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
Focusing on fostering that sense of community in my new role as the CoastWatch Manager and continuing to establish partnership within the Great Lakes remote sensing community between academia, local agencies, and other Federal agencies.
What do you hope the future for women in science looks like?
Equality is important. We are getting there but we are not fully there yet. Science has been primarily male dominated, especially while I was in engineering school. Maintaining long-term relationships with my women colleagues that I have worked with over the years, has created a supportive community.
What is the best advice ever given to you by a mentor or colleague?
The best advice that I have gotten from a mentor is to instill hope in discovery. Hope in the work that we do will make a difference along with discovering new tools to further NOAA’s mission.
What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?
Seek mentors to help along the way. Nurture relationships with other women scientists. Maintain a healthy sense of humor. And finally, if you have ideas that should be heard, be the voice at the table.