This article is part of our series, “ Lessons to My Younger Self .”
“How has the oil spill changed you?”
The question came from Coast Guard Lt. Joe Kusek as we were packing up to leave BP headquarters in Houston, where I had been stationed for the previous four months, working 17-hour days seven days a week to help contain the oil and plug the well. The young lieutenant and I had become brothers-in-arms in the fight against the oil spill. Without a moment’s hesitation, I responded, “I will never again be able to work on anything insignificant.”
It is not as though my life to date had been frittered away on soap operas and bonbons. After all, I had managed to raise three smart, independent, beautiful, well-educated daughters, who are each well on their way to successful careers of their own. And while doing so, I earned tenure at MIT, and then went on to direct the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), which developed such a reputation for doing the impossible in the deep sea—and making it look easy—that it became known as “NASA for the oceans.”
But the oil spill definitely upped the ante in terms of how I would henceforth define “doing what counts.” However, with 60 knocking on the door, how many more opportunities will I still have to apply my science training to issues of significance? How I wish I had been re-calibrated sooner! How I wish I could have learned this lesson earlier in life.
I thought back to an incident that happened when I was the Director at MBARI. A young expert in information technology came into my office to tell me he was resigning to pursue a higher paying position in Silicon Valley. MBARI paid its IT professionals well—but as a non-profit, we couldn’t pay Silicon Valley wages.
A few months later, he returned, seeking to be re-hired, and I asked him why he had changed his mind. He answered that it was because of his mother. When he was employed at MBARI, she had always been proud of him because he was saving the oceans. But now, she didn’t dare tell anyone that her son was spending his career writing software to outwit spam filters .
His choices might have been extreme—saving the seas versus circumventing spam filters. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the more significant path in his case. But the oil spill prompted me to think about how I had invested my time. Had I had my equivalent of programming attacks on spam filters in my career?
Sadly, yes. Like those insignificant papers I had published as a scientist that but a handful of fellow nerds had even read and even fewer had ever cited in the following years. Or worse, as an institute director, those scientists I had insufficiently mentored and never properly advised to work on significant problems.
Every field has its own equivalent of the work that stops the oil spill and the work that defeats spam filters. Taking up the latter may be the easy road, and it may pay better. Doing the former can involve taking more risks —but it will, in the end, be more rewarding.
If your mother isn’t proud of what you do now, you ultimately won’t be proud of it either. Take it from me—you can avoid an awkward midlife crisis later by steering a path of significance now.
For more in this series, check out: Lessons To My Younger Self
Marcia K. McNutt, PhD, is the first female director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in its 130-year history. The USGS provides science advice for the nation in its mission areas of Water, Ecosystems, Energy and Minerals, Natural Hazards, Climate and Land Use Change, and Mapping. She previously led the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Dr. McNutt joined the MIT faculty in1982 and became the Griswold Professor of Geophysics. A distinguished scientist, Dr. McNutt has participated in 15 major oceanographic expeditions and served as chief scientist on more than half of those voyages.More from this Author