Scientist Spotlight: Janet Cushing and Building a Career on Diverse Experiences
This profile was written by Courtenay Duzet, National CASC Science Communication Specialist.
It Started with Geology
Janet Cushing’s road to becoming the Deputy Chief of the National Climate Adaptation Science Center has been defined by an openness to new opportunities that helped her acquire the right tools to face any challenge. She acknowledges that “a part of being successful in my current position is my varied experiences.”
Her journey began at Colgate University in New York, where she earned a B.A. in Geology, followed by a Master's degree in Geology and Geophysics from the University of Hawai’i. During her time in Hawai’i, she learned more about the processes that shape planetary bodies, but began to explore the history and evolution of life itself, and after completing her master’s degree, conducted additional graduate work in paleoecology & paleontology at the University of Chicago.
Moving from geology to paleontology led to her looking at the Earth’s history from a new angle. “I had to learn the ecological side of things,” she says. This helped her develop an understanding for how plants, animals, and ecosystems have changed and adapted over time.
Moving into Resource Management
During a year of soul-searching while taking a leave of absence from grad school, Janet took an internship with the Student Conservation Association at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. It was there where she had an epiphany. In her role as an Assistant Natural Resources Manager for the navy, she discovered that she could go beyond science research and actually apply her scientific knowledge to real-life resource management issues. This realization led her to pivot her career path from academia to resource management.
With multiple career options ahead of her, Janet accepted a position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, first as a regulatory specialist, assessing mitigation actions for Clean Water Act permits across 16 counties in Florida, and later as an environmental planner, leading restoration efforts for Everglades National Park. In the latter role, her diverse skills and experiences took center stage. The Army Corps plans its restoration projects typically over a 50-year horizon, and for a complex wetland system of plants, animals, water, and geology like the Everglades, this means successful projects must consider past, present, and future changes.
And thinking about future conditions meant thinking about climate change. In South Florida, sea level rise, and more intense and more frequent hurricanes, affects how water circulates through the Everglades. Therefore, “you have to think about how the climate is changing to be successful in planning for restoration.”
This experience paved the way later in Janet’s career when she joined another part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – the Institute for Water Resources. There, she worked with an interdisciplinary team to develop a framework for considering climate change implications in planning ecosystem restoration projects and participated on the Inland Waters Technical Team, writing sections of the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. She notes, “that's how I got into climate change.”
Partnering with Resource Managers
“There are a lot of things that I can do in my job to help resource managers.”
Her experience in developing frameworks for climate-informed ecosystem restoration made Janet a natural fit for her current role as Deputy Chief for the USGS National CASC.
Nowadays, you can find her starting conversations with resource managers at agencies such as the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking to understand their challenges and determine the science they need to make informed planning decisions. She also leads outreach to environmental non-profit organizations, helping to build new collaborations with CASC scientists.
“There are a lot of things that I can do in my job to help resource managers.”
And Janet’s work and collaborations also support international climate adaptation efforts.
During her time at the USGS, Janet has worked with a large international working group as an advisor to the Water Infrastructure Criteria Technical Working Group that developed criteria for climate bonds that are issued by investment banks to developing countries in order to improve the climate resilience of their water assets.
She's also been able to share her knowledge about climate change adaptation with local managers in Madagascar where she was part of a team of CASC researchers who synthesized the observed and projected impacts of climate change on water resources, agriculture, human health, coastal ecosystems, fisheries, and more in Madagascar to support ongoing climate adaptation and mitigation activities there.
Creating and Supporting Inclusivity
Janet is actively involved in and supportive of various diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) programs and initiatives at the USGS and Department of Interior. This includes that, as a Japanese-American, she is an active member of the Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC) where she serves as a senior advisor for the Department of Interior chapter to help shine a light on the benefits and scientific discoveries Asian Americans have brought to our society and the critical roles they have played in American history. She was also critical in launching the USGS Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander (AANHPI) employee resource group (ERG).
Her experience with DEIA, FAPAC, AANHPI ERG and other government initiatives led to her serving as an advisor to the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders which seeks to create a strategy to promote safety and equity for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities. Janet shows great leadership and community support in all of these roles.
Building on a Foundation of Diverse Experiences
"We have an amazing, dedicated group of folks in our network.”
Her different roles and positions have allowed her to meet with a variety of researchers and students to learn more about the science being done across the nation. These interactions energize her to better understand how new science, new partnerships, and new strategies can help deliver science that serves everyone.
As dynamic as her position with the National CASC is, if you were to ask Janet what aspect of her job still excites her after nearly eight years with the USGS, she will unwaveringly say, “Really, the people. We have an amazing, dedicated group of folks in our network.”
With a successful career built upon a foundation of diverse experiences, Janet has a deep well of wisdom to draw from. “I have lots of advice,” she says, for anyone seeking to go into the federal government, or any career for that matter.
The best piece of advice she’s received is to embrace change.
“To me, the only way to grow, whether it's personally or professionally, is to go outside one’s comfort zone.”
That may be switching agencies, just as did when she moved from the Army Corps to the USGS, or perhaps even taking up a new position within a department. Janet can tell you that experiencing new challenges, cultures, and responsibilities may be challenging, but in the end “you’ll always grow and become a better employee, and a better person.”
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