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Recipients of the 2020 Excellence in Leadership Award

In recognition of their outstanding acts, services, and achievements that exemplify and support the USGS leadership goals throughout the Bureau. The citations for the selectees are listed below.

Laura Norman

Leslie Hsu

COVID-19 Response Team

Thomas O’Connell


Excellence in Leadership Award

Dr. Laura Norman 

Dr. Laura Norman is being recognized with the USGS Excellence in Leadership Award in recognition of her work to protect, restore and sustain the scarce and threatened water resources of the US-Mexico Borderlands. With boundless energy and an uncanny ability to promote teamwork, Dr. Norman is forging a path in this difficult binational, bicultural environment where few have met with success, serving as a catalyst to gather together people to enhance and preserve water resources on private and public lands. This has resulted in a dynamic collective of land managers, scientists, students and practitioners who readily share information, ideas, and inspiration to produce and implement natural resource management actions that are informed by science and optimized for the arid environment of the southwestern United States.  

Dr. Norman’s work in the US-Mexico Borderlands began in 1998 while interning at the USGS during graduate school. Her humanitarian interests dovetailed with her USGS research that sought to protect the people of the border region, particularly the poor and disadvantaged, from the harmful effects of flooding and polluted water. She examined the characteristics of mines, natural ore deposits, and landscapes that can lead to contamination of watersheds. She helped the twin border cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico to understand and develop plans to decrease urbanization-enhanced flooding and lower the risk of rupturing their main sewage pipe which transports the raw sewage from hundreds of thousands of people. To do this, the International Boundary and Water Commission (a branch of the State Department of both countries) funded Laura to use watershed models to estimate the effectiveness of water-detention structures installed by the Mexican government and to recommend locations for additional structures to reduce flood and contamination risk.  

Because of her growing expertise, her effectiveness in bringing disconnected groups together to solve problems, and the joy and optimism which she brings to every task, Laura’s reputation spread. In 2014, Laura was the main organizer of a workshop with representatives from the USGS, USFS, USFWS, BLM, DHS, several NGOs and state agencies. The group visited several sites with resource-management challenges and began developing a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to restoration including best practices, as well as monitoring and modelling impacts. Inspired by the sight of water flowing in once-dry streams and pools in an area that has been in a drought for more than a decade, Laura has been working to quantify the impacts of rock detention structures and document their efficacy.  

In 2019 and 2020, Dr. Norman created a special journal publication to showcase, “Case studies of a grassroots binational restoration collaborative in the Madrean Archipelago Ecoregion (2014-2019)", with Drs. H. Ron Pulliam and Michele Girard. Articles portray successes and failures of a group called the Sky Island Restoration Cooperative (SIRC) collaboration, which formed and began working and collaborating on shared projects, as the direct result of Laura’s workshop initiative, interpersonal skills, and novel research. She has connected on-the-ground practitioners, scientists, and land managers to restore watersheds, improve rangeland function, and preserve water resources in the ecosystems of southeastern Arizona. This special journal edition portrays a novel and necessary integration of the science and practice of restoration ecology. Dr. Norman also facilitates a local SIRC discussion group, boasting ~120 members over the past 6 years. Laura mentors an interdisciplinary team that variously includes volunteers, contractors, graduate students, TERMS, PERMS, and post-docs, and motivates new and exciting research in the field of aridland restoration ecohydrology.  

Dr. Laura Norman is considered the USGS point person when it comes to U.S.-Mexico borderlands science, as well as aridlands riparian restoration research, demonstrated by her vast record of publication and curriculum vitae. Because of Laura’s science and effective communication promoting impacts of rock-detentions structures, the Mexican Government and USFS and Reclamation, along with many other private agencies, are now implementing the installation of thousands of these structures to recharge water that will help meet people’s water needs, and bring dead or dying streams, rivers, and ecosystems back to life again. Her achievement is important to the Nation, not only because she has helped inspire the implementation of effective restoration, but also because she has created and fostered a collaborative collective of individuals who work together to get important things done. 

Nominated by: Pamela Nagler, Southwest Biological Science Center and Susan Benjamin, Director, Western Geographic Science Center 


Excellence in Leadership Award 

Leslie Hsu 

Leslie Hsu, coordinator of the USGS Community for Data Integration, exemplifies USGS Guiding Principles: she is both respectful of, and highly respected by, her peers; she is accountable for her actions and consistently responsive to requests for support and information; she communicates clearly and effectively (with model organizational skills!); she values differences, listens to alternate views, and navigates groups towards compromise; she encourages others in activities ranging from presentations to leading new initiatives; she is focused and has maintained her work output even with the distractions of the pandemic; and, perhaps most of all, she is collaborative and has exceptional skills in community building and development, demonstrated by the thriving network that is the CDI. 

Leslie has enhanced the community in an unparalleled way. In a few short years, she has increased the membership of the CDI from 500 in 2015 to 1,700 members in 2020 by tirelessly promoting the community through outreach, appealing presentations, and her engaging personality. She has introduced innovative meeting approaches including interactive meetings, group learning, reading groups, transparent work-out-loud sessions, interactive online meetings, scientist challenges, and lightning sessions. Leslie is always conscious of her audience as she structures and delivers her message. Her talent for amalgamating information and presenting it in a succinct and actionable way is one of the best in the Bureau. She has mastered the ever-evolving meeting and collaboration technologies and is known as a gracious but efficient facilitator, with the ability to keep even Directors on topic. 

CDI is made up of several communities of practice (CoP) varying in size and scope. Leslie nurtures these teams, helping new CoPs maximize communication with their membership and helping established CoPs adopt new techniques and access needed resources. Representatives of many CoPs have expressed gratitude for her help. For example, the Risk CoP says: 

“We benefit from her expertise in developing the format for our monthly meetings, creating guidance and review processes for our annual request for proposals, and identifying creative ways to meaningfully engage our community in both virtual and (pre-COVID) in-person formats. Leslie has been a reliable leader, colleague, and friend throughout our journey – she does it all!” 

Similar praise comes from the recipients of CDI projects, whose funding is partially determined in an open, fun, and democratic process Leslie developed. One says Leslie is “a consummate professional. She answered any questions I had, provided just the right guidance and kept me on track. I always felt a sense of confidence in knowing that I could count on her to help me meet my obligations.” CDI projects like the Machine Learning Mondays lecture series engage a diverse swath of the USGS in cutting-edge topics. Leslie has somehow made the potentially sleepy field of “Data Integration” an exciting and unifying part of the USGS fabric. 

Leslie’s leadership extends well beyond the USGS. She uses her role to build collaboration across scientific and academic organizations nationwide. In 2018 she served as chair of the Geological Society of America Geoinformatics Division; in 2019 she co-chaired the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System Terrestrial Working Group with over 1000 members. She has been a mentor in the Society for Women in Geophysics, Colorado School of Mines since 2016. She is Chair of American Geophysics Union Data Management Board Chair. She served as co-chair of the EarthCube Liaison Team in 2018 and was awarded the EarthCube Community Service Award in the same year. Leslie was selected for the year-long AAAS Community Engagement Fellowship Program in 2019, where she learned the science of community building. She has engaged with the Science Gateways Community Institute, Software and Data Carpentry, and the Earth Science Information Partners, partnering with these organizations to directly benefit the CDI.

While some leaders seek to impress and gain followers, Leslie leads by applying her intellect, passion, and energy for the betterment of the CDI and greater USGS. Her goal is to foster a community of inclusion and support collaborative science. She can influence and lead from behind the scenes without seeking credit, a sign of a true leader. Leslie ensures success for the people she helps, setting an example for Excellence in Leadership for the USGS. 

Nominated by: Christopher R. Sherwood, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center and Vivian Hutchison, Science Analytics & Synthesis, Core Science Systems 

Endorsed by: Kevin Gallagher, Associated Director, Core Science Systems 


Excellence in Leadership Group Award (ELA)  

USGS COVID-19 Response Team 


The pandemic has posed an unprecedented challenge to our bureau. Rising to meet that challenge has been an extraordinary effort that exemplifies leadership at its finest and why I nominate the USGS COVID-19 Response Team for the group award. Their work is not done, but the team deserves this recognition for what has been accomplished in 2020 to keep our people safe while continuing to achieve our mission. 

When confronted with a hazard that simultaneously affected all our centers and offices, coordination was critical for accountability, information sharing, guidance development, and a collective sense of purpose. Using incident command principles developed for wildfire response, USGS Emergency Management Coordinator Marie Peppler quickly stood up the USGS COVID-19 Response Team at the beginning of March 2020. Sub-teams were established as needed to handle the many aspects of the response.  

Hundreds of individuals have contributed to the team throughout the year, and simply managing that scale of an effort would be cause enough for leadership recognition. But this nomination is about the way that the team was led throughout the crisis with constant attention to the USGS Guiding Principles and the many other leadership principles that are criteria for this award. In a situation that demanded a tremendous amount of process, people always came first. The human element and the needs of our far-flung staff were always at the forefront of discussion and decision-making.  

With respect to the Guiding Principles: 

Be respectful – Despite operating under high-stress conditions, kindness was king. There were strong opinions expressed and difficult subjects tackled but always with a recognition that this was new for everyone and the only way the bureau would make it through was together.  

Be accountable – This took many forms, but I highlight elevating records management as a key component of the team, which reflected their commitment to documenting what was being done and why.  

Communicate – If there is one aspect that set this team apart, it was the creative communication of what our staff needed to know: A series of virtual town halls and ask-the-team anything sessions, leader blogs, an internal website with all the many guidance documents, and the widely circulated Friday emails from Marie complete with recipes.  

Value differences – The team brought together USGS staff from every corner of the bureau to harness the incredible diversity of expertise needed to tackle the problems of the day. That meant constant exposure to different perspectives, experiences, knowledge bases, and modes of communication. And with that came a deep appreciation for what each person brought to the shared fight. 

Encourage – I cannot stress enough how important encouragement was as the marathon turned into a never-ending ultra. With Marie setting the tone, the team’s leaders kept this coalition of the willing ready to meet the next challenge through positive pressure. Mistakes were made and acknowledged but not dwelt upon beyond what could be learned for next time. 

Focus – Week after week, the team met and debated and put nose to the grindstone to produce what was needed. The topics changed, but the focus on solving the problem never wavered.  

Collaborate – The response team took many forms throughout 2020 as new sub-teams were formed and others stood down. Very few topics could be tackled by just one part of the organization because every topic had cascading consequences and considerations. The ability to manage these shifting collaborations through an adaptable structure without losing continuity of knowledge or records was a key achievement of the Sustained Response Team. 

With word count tight, I hope the above also addresses the leadership skills noted in the selection criteria. Interpersonal skills were through the roof, and I have never seen such wonderful cooperative working relationships across so many different parts of the bureau. The commitment to continual learning is exemplified in the after-action report process -- they did not wait until after the dust settled but strongly encouraged team members to share what worked and didn’t work while it was fresh. Problem solving speaks for itself as not a day went by without the team being presented with some novel challenge, some new curveball that needed an ever-evolving set of skills and perspectives to be brought to bear.  

Nominated by: David Applegate, Associate Director for Natural Hazards 


Early Career Excellence in Leadership Award

Thomas O'Connell

Thomas O’Connell demonstrates excellence in leadership daily resulting in great contribution to the USGS. This year Mr. O’Connell initiated and significantly advanced the organizational merge with another USGS science center, doubling the management of personnel, budget, and science portfolio; co‐led an interagency effort appointed by the USGS Director; and implemented the closure of a USGS‐owned facility, while advancing cooperation with key partners and without sacrificing customer service and response to stakeholders. 

Mr. O’Connell maintains a high degree of integrity and is exemplary in his demonstration of the USGS Guiding Principles. The suite of leadership skills he applies clearly relates to the degree of results achieved. One example is the improved cooperation with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission which resulted in including USGS in the organization’s MOU with NOAA and USFWS. A catalyst toward this outcome was the joint all hands meeting of two USGS science centers and two interstate fisheries commissions he co‐led with the center director of the Great Lakes Science Center. This unprecedented event fostered the engagement of the organizations’ science leaders including executive levels and resulted in improved personnel and technical resource management and customer service to USGS partners. Mr. O’Connell’s vision for enhanced partner and employee engagement and commitment to communication facilitated the development of a shared vision that has potential to expand across the USGS and other interstate commissions in the future. 

Mr. O’Connell’s focus on the USGS mission coupled with his ability to effectively develop strong working relationships led to his appointment by the USGS Director to represent USGS and co‐lead the USGS/USDA‐APHIS interagency working group focused on strategies to enhance readiness and address emerging zoonotic diseases in wildlife, resulting in an MOU to formalize the interagency partnership. In other efforts, Mr. O’Connell’s leadership landed two new USFWS interagency agreements, one with USFWS Region 1 to conduct science in support of the region’s species pre‐listing science priorities, another with the National Conservation Training Center to advance priority cooperative training opportunities between USGS and USFWS, both of which are expected to be renewed annually and strengthen DOI relations. 

Due to his proven ability in resource management, Mr. O’Connell was selected as the center director to implement the merge of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the Leetown Science Center. His collaborative approach is exhibited through his ongoing engagement with the combined management team to assist with creating solutions to overcome the new center’s challenges. Despite remote working conditions, Mr. O’Connell committed to meet with all employees; his strong interpersonal skills helped create a safe environment where employees were encouraged to share their backgrounds and thoughts. His engagement with managers and employees enabled him to make the needed adjustments to the center’s shared vision and implement innovative organizational changes. Mr. O’Connell’s ability to encourage others and recognize the opportunities of the merged center is contagious. Throughout its implementation, he has demonstrated skills in continual learning, problem solving, and technical competence while addressing the need for operational consistency and introducing policy when warranted. The new organization consists of science capability teams that align with the center’s strengths and mission area priorities and integrated science project teams designed to address the highest partner priorities, which supports today’s vision and will enable the center to remain nimble and respond to society’s future needs. 

Concurrently Mr. O’Connell implemented the closure of the Northern Appalachian Research Lab, which required great technical competence while executing a plan to address personnel and facility issues. He enabled employee engagement and a comprehensive review of personnel action options to mitigate impacts to employees while supporting USGS science mission. His proactive and close communications throughout the process exemplifies his high degree of respect for others and focus on customer service. 

Mr. O’Connell’s leadership, quiet and constant, is worthy of great recognition. His collaborative approach, steady decisiveness, and consistent respectful nature mixed with his ability to hold employees and colleagues accountable to effective resource management is a recipe for sustainable success. Mr. O’Connell has brought the skills honed during his decades of state government leadership to the USGS in these four years of his federal service and this year particularly provided a platform for others to witness his excellence in leadership and contributions to the USGS. 

Nominated by: Andrea Ostroff, Deputy Director Eastern Ecological Science Center