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New Director of Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center

Rob Thieler is the new director of the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center in Massachusetts.

This article is part of the March 2017 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

A man with short hair wearing a red plaid shirt with a grey vest stands outdoors in front of a blurred background setting
Rob Thieler, new director of the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center. Photo credit: USGS.

On January 9, 2017, Rob Thieler relieved Walter Barnhardt as Center Director of the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center in Massachusetts. Thieler brings nearly 20 years of USGS experience as a researcher, project leader, and strategic planner to this role.

Starting with a B.A. in political science from Dickinson College, Thieler changed course to earn an environmental science M.S. and geology Ph.D. from Duke University. He first started working at the USGS as a post-doctoral researcher in 1997. Thieler's research interests range from coastal-change hazards, to continental-shelf geologic processes, to developing smart-phone apps to study shorebird-habitat selection.

Thieler also developed the widely used Digital Shoreline Analysis System, and made major contributions to the even more popular USGS Coastal Change Hazards portal. He also enjoys communicating science to general audiences, writing several articles for Sound Waves, plus op-eds for CNN (see "What's next after Superstorm Sandy?") and the Cape Cod Times (see "Sea level to rise about three feet by 2100").

In this edited interview, Thieler discusses how much fun he's had working at the USGS, and how he plans to build our science. Then Barnhardt reviews his accomplishments, and ends with one sentence of advice for Rob.

Screen shots of the USGS iPlover smart phone app. Left, a row of buttons on grey background; right, map titled 'Map Nest Sites'
Screen shots from the USGS iPlover smart-phone app. Image credit: USGS.
3 researchers on the deck of a ship, with the sea in the background, are pulling on a thick black cable.
Rob Thieler (left), Laura Brothers, and David Foster pull in a cable containing underwater microphones after completing a seismic survey in 2014. Photo credit: Alex Nichols, USGS. 

How did you get started at the USGS?

I thought my wife and I were moving up to Woods Hole for a two-year post-doc, and then I was back into academia. But I really got sold on the scale of problems that the USGS works on, and how we communicate our science to people, and how we could do better at it. Sometimes it feels like I've been at this 20 years, but most often it feels like I just started yesterday.

That is largely due to how much fun it has been to work for the USGS and pursue the USGS and the coastal and marine science agenda. There's no shortage of problems on the coast, and there's no shortage of interesting ways to address those problems.

Why did you want to be Center Director?

A succession of excellent center directors in Woods Hole has fostered, facilitated, given free range, reminded of program priorities, pushed for, and sometimes pushed back on my research—all these things have allowed me to have a very enjoyable and productive career. When this position came open, I looked at where I was professionally, where my family was personally, and said, "This would be a good time for me to give back."

I think that I can be pretty good at it. There will certainly be plenty of people who will tell me when I'm not.

What unique attributes do you bring to this job?

I have one foot on the beach, and one foot in the water. That has afforded lots of opportunities to work with other agencies that do coastal management. I've had a view of how to work within the federal government to represent what our agency does, and also to work across the federal government to make our work more cohesive, better articulated, and more efficient.

A few years ago, I was part of the group that published the Geologic Division Science Strategy. That provided a chance to look broadly across both the USGS and the federal government and see the kinds of things that we do that benefit the Nation, that benefit the Bureau, that benefit our region, that benefit my center.

What changes in direction do you anticipate for your science center?

We are staffed effectively to answer a lot of scientific challenges, and that's a credit to how Walter [Barnhardt] has guided us. Having a staff full of inquisitive minds that find interest in a broad array of topics gives us a lot of flexibility. Regardless of how challenging our work gets, we're going to need to be aggressive about communicating clearly to Congress and the administration about where we have value as part of the federal enterprise, and what it's going to take to do the kinds of things that will best serve the Nation, in terms of Earth science.

John Haines (USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program Coordinator) has done a really good job of articulating a program-wide vision, and how we are going to act on the new Coastal and Marine Geology Program science strategy that our scientists developed. There are going to be some new opportunities to improve our relevance as part of the USGS and improve the visibility of the USGS. I have always enjoyed building things, and the research programs that I've led over the years have been opportunities to do that. I'm confident that this is going to be similar but different; it's going to be bigger.

The challenge here is to think about where you want to go and what you're going to need to get there. And how you're going to help everybody buy into the vision, as an opportunity to grow in response to the challenges.

How will you help your staff buy into that vision?

It's always been a point of emphasis in our monthly center meetings to give an overview of what's going on across our groups, who's publishing what, where that research is going, what are the big research achievements, who's going in the field to do what. So at least once a month everyone is reminded of all that the center is doing and how it relates to the larger USGS mission.
Is there a school for science center directors?

If they're going to send me away for a couple weeks, they haven't told me. Yes, there are lots of things I'm going to learn about. But when it comes to working with the Coastal and Marine Geology Program Coordinator, working with the regional leadership and the other science center directors, these are things that draw heavily on professional expertise that you've accumulated. 
Understanding who the people are, which of our staff can really run with this opportunity? Is this opportunity even something that's worth passing along? Acting as an umbrella to allow the research staff to keep doing what they do is an important and big part of the job. Answering the data calls and sometimes delivering bad news about budget cuts. I don't think these are things they teach you at school.

Any last thoughts?

These are going to be interesting times, and I am privileged to have been selected for this position. I will work hard to help my bureau, my region, and my center succeed.


A man in a green shirt and dark jeans gestures at a poster on a table which leans on the brick wall behind it
Walter Barnhardt provides information about a poster in 2007. Photo credit: Chris Polloni, USGS. 

Walter Barnhardt led the Woods Hole Science Center for more than seven years (see "New Director of USGS Woods Hole Science Center"), until returning to research in early January. He answered a few questions while sitting between boxes in his new office.

What were your greatest accomplishments as Center Director?

Managing through difficult times. I never imagined some of the challenges we would face, but we made the best of them. I'm most proud of bringing in an outstanding cadre of new researchers, technical and operational personnel, and admin staff. Talented people are the key to maintaining scientific excellence at a time when sound, impartial science is needed more than ever. 

Hurricane Sandy loomed large over my tenure, and managing the supplemental funding was exciting and terrifying at the same time. The additional money was welcome but came with restrictions and strict deadlines. We aimed high, carried out colossal field programs, and delivered influential products on time and on budget. Other accomplishments include securing access to the Woods Hole high-performance computer network and reconfiguring the network to comply with federal security mandates. Rob [Thieler] has inherited a crackerjack IT group—ably led by Steve Taylor—who has built out computing resources in recent years that are the envy of any research institution.

And, of course, none of this would have been possible without our administrative officer Janet Paquette, and Dave Nichols, our facilities and operations chief. They are the real stars who have kept us on a steady course.

What's next for you?

I'm looking forward to resurrecting some long-dormant research in the Gulf of Maine, the Great Lakes, and elsewhere. Already living the dream with my phone not ringing quite so often!

One sentence of advice for Rob?

Remember that the mission of the USGS is science, and everything else is secondary.

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