Jordan Gerth, Physical Scientist, Leveraged Observations Lead, NOAA National Weather Service, Office of Observations

Jordan Gerth, Physical Scientist, Leveraged Observations Lead, NOAA National Weather Service, Office of Observations

Please include details about your educational background and what sparked your interest in atmospheric or related sciences.

I knew as a child that I wanted to pursue a career in meteorology. I remember collecting daily weather observations when I was in kindergarten and plotting them on a graph, noting how the afternoons were usually warmer than the mornings. When I was in high school, I spent two days a week at the local National Weather Service (NWS) field office over the summer, which cemented my passion for the field and nature of the work.

I completed my B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison between 2005 and 2013. UW-Madison is the birthplace of satellite meteorology, so the breadth of knowledge and collective experience that was available to me was highly advantageous and inspiring, and I soon found a calling in working with weather satellites and connecting that back to weather forecast operations. I enjoyed the research environment at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS) as an undergraduate student and beyond.

My very early career experience learning how to combine science, technical computing, and observations into actionable information for society was strongly impelling as a complement to my childhood passion for weather.

What was your first job in the field and how did you end up in the job you are in now?

My education and early career journey were incredibly linear. My first non-student job was as a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), following completion of my degrees and postdoctoral work, all at UW-Madison. I had the same office when I started in a non-student role as when I started in a student role! And the work in my first job was similar to what I had been doing as a student as well; I developed the training program for the new generation of geostationary and polar-orbiting weather satellites, focusing particularly on the Pacific Basin. NOAA grants funded my work.

In 2019, there was an opportunity to join the National Weather Service (NWS) Office of Observations and I felt that my current position as a physical scientist and leveraged observations lead aligned with my background and skill set almost perfectly. Perhaps my greatest professional challenge to date was switching from academia to government service, but I was glad to find a welcoming team at the NWS.

What opportunities did you pursue that you knew would be beneficial to securing a job in the profession?

I found networking highly beneficial and I encourage it through any means possible. I recommend that any student or early career professional searching for a first job or new job to accept as many opportunities to network as possible. That can be more challenging for students without the ability or means to travel because conferences allow the best opportunities to meet people with aligned interests. I was fortunate to have support from the University of Wisconsin-Madison when I was an undergraduate student to attend and present at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and National Weather Association (NWA) annual meetings. Those meetings and exposure they provided were undeniably the basis for my career. And I continue to attend those annual meetings, in part for the same reason: to continue to network. The AMS and NWA also have professional committees with opportunities for students to serve.

What other courses/skills beyond the required math and science courses do you think would be the most helpful to individuals wanting a career in your profession?

Any courses that develop the “soft skills” related to leadership and communication are immensely helpful. People in highly technical fields carry an additional burden of having to distill complex topics to practical applications and assist in decision-making, so developing those skills to complement a strong scientific background can make a scientist highly effective.

I also recommend computer science and business classes to develop more interdisciplinary expertise. Computing is increasingly at the foundation of our enterprise, and, even if your work is not directly related to computing, it’s an increasingly large part of budgets and services. Gaining knowledge for the solution space of computing-based challenges in meteorology is an asset to successful organizations seeking to build capacity in that area.

What is your typical day on the job like?

I jokingly tell people that I spend a typical day responding to a constant barrage of emails punctuated with meetings and PowerPoint presentations. There is certainly that element, but I try to make time to learn something new, whether developing a research topic, reviewing technical reports, or understanding how part of the organization works. The most critical portion of my job is preparing and giving briefings to senior leadership, then communicating decisions across line offices. But of course, there is always time to check the weather across the country!

There is also the opportunity to travel to conferences and visit our field offices. That is an aspect that I particularly enjoy because the field offices are where the “real work” of the National Weather Service (NWS) is done – where we interface with our partners, stakeholders, and the public. The U.S. Government makes substantial investments in meteorological observations, but we don’t realize that value until they are applied to an operational decision (that is, when we convey a forecast that causes someone to change or confirm their course of action).

What do you like most about your job? What is the most challenging thing about your job?

In my eyes, an ideal job is one that is interesting and rewarding, and there are good people that share my professional values. I enjoy contributing to large, consequential projects at the intersection of science, engineering, and public policy with a strong team of expert and experienced colleagues alongside me. Those independent perspectives and contributions are the cornerstone of good government and help me further my understanding in the broadening field.

In the U.S. Government, there are more priorities than people and funds to execute them. In addition, the bureaucratic machinery grinds away at steady timelines without much benefit, and the institutional dynamics often do not promote innovation. Trying to stave off those slow, sticky gears, whether they be people or processes, and instead acting as an intrepid agent of change, is the greatest challenge.

Does your job allow for a good work/life balance? If not, why?

I have a standard office job that allows for a good balance, and I have colleagues that have come over to the U.S. Government in search of that balance. However, the degree of work-life balance is somewhat a personal responsibility in many office jobs. If I want to work more hours than are in a normal workday, that is my choice. There is always more work to do, and to some extent, colleagues, culture, and supervisors influence that. My supervisor models good behavior for “cutting the cord” when he is on vacation or done for the day, so there isn’t that pressure to stay connected when I am out of the office. But like many of us, it’s hard to not glance at those emails in the evening or over the weekend.

Over the course of your career what is the most exciting thing that has happened to you?

This is a tough question, mainly because I try to find excitement in each week of work. Accomplishing something is exciting; the greater the accomplishment, the more exciting it is.

It is hard to beat the excitement that accompanies the launch of a new weather satellite, however. It’s not only the launch itself that is exciting; the entire event, including seeing all, and meeting some, of the different contributors to the mission, from our industry engineers to government scientists, produces a profound sense of pride that we have done something truly gravity-defying and all of the collective work culminates in this one shared moment.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career?

As a practical matter and on a macro scale, no. There are steps along the way that I may have approached differently in hindsight. It is important to stay mindful that a career is a journey, and that journey is unique for each person. No one will have the same experiences and the same successes, even if they are motivated similarly.

There is a bit of luck that accompanies individual accomplishments. Careers are most often advanced by the people you meet along the way and the doors they open for you. Set a goal and seek out others who can position you to achieve it. Optimize your time focusing on projects, knowledge, and people that will help you reach that goal.

What are some “must haves’’ on a resume if a person wants to gain employment in your field?

For more research-intensive roles, a graduate degree in the physical sciences is necessary, and for science leadership roles, a doctorate is an increasingly likely qualification for competitive applicants. Beyond the degree requirements, showing examples of experience, passion, and teamwork are helpful on a resume, especially volunteerism and customer service. It’s easy for students to focus solely on coursework, which is important to an extent, but conveying a combination of personal motivation with internships and leadership roles can distinguish an applicant from the rest.