Science Branch Chief Retires as a Man of Many Hats, Many Accomplishments at EROS

Release Date:

He started at EROS in November 1980. His first job—data analyst in Science and Applications. From there, John Dwyer traveled a wide-ranging and opportunistic path through what he calls an incredibly satisfying career here at the Center.

Color photo of John Dwyer

USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Center Science and Applications Branch Chief John Dwyer.

A contractor for his first 28 years at EROS, Dwyer worked 11 more years as a Federal employee. He has been a scientist, a department manager, and a branch chief. He worked 10 years with the Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC), signed up for two details at Headquarters in Reston, VA, filled in as an acting deputy director at the Center, and led the Science and Applications Branch as its chief the last two years.

If you prod him a bit, Dwyer might share the crazy side of that career, like the time he drove his Honda Prelude into water rushing over Minnehaha County Highway 121 and almost floated away. On the other hand, when it comes to discussing the ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) that is forcing his early retirement now, there’s no prodding needed. Dwyer talked about all that and more in advance of his last day at EROS on Friday, September 6.

Could you see yourself, when you landed at EROS in your mid-20s, spending your career here?

“At that point in time, we had brought in probably at least a dozen new staff to the Science and Applications Branch. There was a handful of us who always joked that we were leaving the day we got here. Honestly, I thought I would be here a couple of years and then find an opportunity elsewhere in the commercial sector. That didn’t happen. The work was really interesting and back then, we had a lot more freedom to be inquisitive about exploring data and new technology.”

Could you envision then rising to the rank you’re at now?

“Never. That was not in my line of sight. I came here with a bachelor’s degree, so I thought right off the bat I had to work harder than anybody else. Most of my colleagues had master’s and Ph.D.’s. I had an opportunity in the very early 1990s to go to the University of Colorado because we were collaborating with them on developing tools to exploit imaging spectrometry and airborne SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) data. While I was there, I took all my coursework for my master’s and then came back and did my thesis for the master’s degree. That was a big turning point for me. I really absorbed graduate school, and it really helped my self-confidence. I did do a lot of coursework toward a Ph.D., but work and family stuff just got too demanding.”

So, with your master’s, and with some of that Ph.D. work, your career trajectory at EROS changed?

“Yeah, it did. I guess I was fortunate that I got to have a foot in the science and foot in the systems development activities, almost from day one. And it gave me a really unique perspective on things. Working on interdisciplinary teams to bridge science and engineering was necessary and very rewarding.”

You had the opportunity to do details in Reston. What were those about?

“In 2010, I went out there to help work with their effort to get Landsat as an operational program within the Department and the Bureau. It’s always been part of the Remote Sensing program, and now National Land Imaging. But they really wanted the Department to step up and take ownership of it. I spent a lot of my time out there working on those issues, on budget profiles and that kind of stuff. I helped to respond to data calls coming from the Budget Office, and from the Hill.”

Did you find that interesting?

“I did. I found it worthwhile from a couple of perspectives. One is, it gave me a better sense of what the folks at Headquarters have to deal with. And therefore, in the future, when I get a request from them, I know better what they’re looking for. I had wanted to use that as an opportunity to meet more people across the different mission areas, back then, disciplines. But in Reston, you easily got caught up in the vortex of the moment. And actually, it came right after I did a detail as the Deputy Center Director back here when Jeff Eidenshink was the Acting Center Director. So, I had two unique opportunities back to back.”

And there was another detail?

“In 2014, after we did the previous Architecture Study Team report, we were working with the Headquarters staff at DOI/USGS and NASA, and we were asked by OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy) and OMB (Office of Management and Budget) to recommend how the two agencies were going to implement our next mission, which turned out to be a rebuild of Landsat 8. That was a different experience, to be at a briefing at the old Executive Office Building with that level of leadership and see how that sausage is made.”

What has given you the most personal satisfaction about your work here?

“Working with the people here in the Center. This is a great environment ... very smart, talented, energetic folks. One of the things I feel really good about is, back in the mid-1990s when we put the new addition on the building, we had three branches: Science and Applications, Computer Services, and Data Services. As the USGS got involved with Landsat 7 and also the LP DAAC, they established a fourth branch, the Satellite Systems Branch. I was asked on the contract side to be the department manager. I started with six staff assigned to me, but I recruited and hired about 40 people. We had a really good department, a very talented group of people. And that was probably one of the most satisfying experiences. Some of those folks are still here, all in very prominent positions.”

How about other work accomplishments? You’ve had a lot of them.

“I would say another positive sense of accomplishment was building the Landsat Satellites Data System (LSDS) Science Research and Development (LSRD) project team. The capstone of my career, however, is receiving the Distinguished Service Award from the Department of the Interior. It is a great honor for which I am truly humbled, and it is a recognition that I share with everyone with whom I have had the privilege of working with.”

What’s the funniest John Dwyer story during your EROS tenure that you feel comfortable sharing?

“I drove into a flooded stretch of the road out here and got drifted off the road in my car. That was just after I got back from the University of Colorado. It was 1991 or ’92. It was one of those years where we had a really wet spring. There was a lot of rain. I had stayed late at work because I was doing some work on my thesis after hours. I drove out and headed south on (Minnehaha County) 121. A part of the road was covered with water by one of the creeks ... just right by the farm down here. There was a truck coming out the other way that passed me. I figured he needed to come through the water, so I went barreling through. About a second into it, I realized I was now buoyant. As water starts rushing into the doors of my car, I rolled up the windows and opened my sun roof so I could have an egress. I sat on the roof of my car for a while until the Baltic Volunteer Fire Department came and tossed me a rope, at which time all the water had receded.”

Did you take any friendly ribbing about that?

“Yeah. To this day. At the time, I didn’t think it was too funny. I was very pissed because I had done something so stupid, but I really wasn’t thinking about it at the time. I suppose a little self-deprecating humor can work. I remember the day after I drowned my car, I was walking down the hallway sheepishly back to my office, past somebody else’s office, and on their slick board they had a drawing of this Honda Prelude partially submerged with a ‘No Diving’ flag on the antenna.”

That experience aside, what kind of mark do you hope you’ve left on this world?

“You know, that’s never been something that’s really been a conscious thought of mine. But I guess, in a few words, I hope that I’ve established a reputation of fairness and integrity. I’ve always felt that two things they can’t take from you is your sense of humor, and your integrity. My philosophy as a department manager, and now as a branch chief, has been that I worked for my staff. They don’t work for me; I work for them. It’s my job to make sure that they have the resources they need to succeed. I also felt that it was very important that people knew and kept sight of the bigger picture. For example, when I was trying to hire as a department manager, a lot of my colleagues ... other department managers ... would have people in for an hour and a half interview. I wanted people here for the day, to meet people on our team. I wanted them to see this facility top to bottom, because that’s what got people in here—the people, facility and resources.”

When you became the Science Branch Chief, you said you wanted our science mission out front as being the main focus of the Center. How has that gone?

“It’s not that science is the most important thing here; everything we do is important. But at the end of the day, our mission here is to contribute to the science of the USGS and Department of Interior. We are a science agency. Why do we fly satellites? Why do we have a large archive? Why do we invest in IT technology? Why should we be concerned about security? At the end of the day, for the taxpayers’ dollars that are spent on the program ... we need to be able to demonstrate the impact not of the data, but of the information we derive from it, and to help inform decision-making. That’s what is critical at the end.”

Are we meeting that expectation?

“We have a very solid reputation as a Center internationally and nationally, and a good part of that is because of what we’ve done in this branch. I mean, our training programs internationally have had impacts. The science we do that leads to product development, those have an impact. It’s very difficult to communicate that, but I think that’s really important. I would like to think that maybe my advocacy has made a difference. I’ve worked hard, especially before ALS started to compromise me. I made a point on my trips to Reston to get to meet some of the other program areas that never knew there was a science branch here. And reaching out was universally well received.”

What happens with that progress now that you’re retiring?

I hope others can pick up on that. We hear the buzz of integrated, predictive science. Well, the integrated part is really trying to get the mission areas and the programs working more closely together. EROS is a microcosm of that macrocosm. If we want to succeed, we have to master an organization where all of our branches work together more than we have in the past.”

What are your hopes and vision for the Land Change Monitoring, Assessment, and Projection (LCMAP) initiative after you retire?

“I think LCMAP is going to succeed.  We moved into some very uncharted territory without any prior precedence. So, the means by which we’re trying to achieve LCMAP—in other words, the infrastructure element of it—has been very challenging. The volumes of data and the sophistication by which we are trying to process it is unprecedented. But the team will get there. I think LCMAP is going to move us forward into a realm where instead of being reactive to things, we can be more proactive. What I wanted to paint to Director (Jim) Reilly was that on the predictive science aspect of things, we really want to get to the point that we can use long-term climate and long-term meteorology to help us understand where in the U.S. we could be vulnerable to changing conditions, such as drought. What will those impacts be on fire fuels, rangeland productivity, water use and availability? So, based on what we’ve seen historically, we can monitor landscape condition during the course of the year and look for departures from historical norms—where things are trending and get ahead of the curve on it. I think that’s where we need to go.”

How do you see the future of the science branch at EROS?

“I hope that we have an opportunity to integrate young blood into the branch because we’ve been budgetarily constrained in recent years. We haven’t been able to bring new people in. Our workforce has suffered from attrition; we haven’t been able to grow. We’ve lost a lot of our very experienced scientists. We need the next generation coming in that are trained differently both academically but also in the technology. The staff have been prolific at publishing.  But most importantly, we need young scientists that have the fire in their belly, the excitement, the curiosity to keep that legacy alive.”

You’ve talked about your ALS. What kind of role has that played in your decision to retire?

“ALS is the reason I’m retiring. I’ve been very open about my health situation. Over the past couple of months, it’s been a race to see, can I finish up before I lose mobility, or before I do a face plant in front of an audience. Managing my ALS is getting to be a lot of work. I do envision that I’m probably just weeks away from being in a wheelchair. I will be 64 in September. I probably would have preferred to work to 65, 66, but I’m not as effective because of ALS. So, it’s time to turn the reins over to somebody else.”

What will you miss most about this place?

“The people and our partners. At EROS we deal with people from other countries, from other agencies. That’s a priceless opportunity. The intellectual capital and being able to stand on the shoulders of giants, as Jim Irons (with NASA) would say, was just a real honor. I’ve got a lot of respect for the people here. We have a great talent pool. Bright people. But you know, every organization needs a vision and needs leadership. And I hope at some point maybe, I’ll be viewed as somebody who contributed a little bit towards that.”

Any final thoughts you want to share?

“Yeah. I want to say thank you to everybody. This has been a great place to work. What is that old saying? ‘If you find a job you like, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ I can say that.”

Related Content

Filter Total Items: 1

2018-2023 Landsat Science Team

The 2018-2023 Landsat Science Team provides technical and scientific input to USGS and NASA on issues critical to the success of the Landsat program.