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Ellen Mecray
Katie Valentine

Ellen Mecray

Ellen Mecray is the regional climate services director for the Eastern Region at NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), and started her NOAA career as a physical scientist and lead strategic planner at NOAA’s Office of Atmospheric Research (OAR). Her work focuses on figuring out how to make the data and information coming out of NESDIS’ National Centers for Environmental Information useful, useable, and used by a broad range of stakeholders. 

What drew you to your current career or field?

I have a funny path to science. I went to college thinking I was going to be an economics major. When considering courses, my dean said to me, “Why don’t you find a class that is purely interesting to you and what you love?” There was an oceanography course in the geology department, and that was kind of it for me. I love the ocean. I love studying the ocean. So I declared a major in geology and went on to graduate school in oceanography. 

What drew me to my current path in the regional climate services realm is something that my mom said to me: “I don’t think you’re supposed to be locked in a lab, honey.” At first, I didn’t really know what she meant by that because my work involved laboratory time, but the regional climate services job is about understanding the science and communicating it effectively. So I went from being a bench scientist, to a seagoing scientist, to communicating science and understanding the needs of our customers.

What projects or research are you working on now?

The biggest project that I’m working on now is integrating services across NOAA. It’s really something I’m passionate about. Several arms of NOAA work in the customer engagement/service delivery realm in different ways. We have a team working to sort out what it really means to build use-inspired tools, and conduct use-inspired science. We also need to work on how to tell the stories about what customers want from NOAA — and work within NOAA to figure out how best to be responsive to those needs. 

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I think it’s the sleuthing of the application of our science. I feel like when I go out and talk to customers — which could be energy companies, transportation engineers, or marine fisheries managers — most of them appreciate NOAA’s reputation. The investment in regional service delivery comes into play when we get in the door after doing the work it takes to build trusted relationships with these folks. You don’t walk into Moody’s Analytics in NYC or energy utility companies around the region without devoting the time to understand their concerns, and to sleuth the connections between NOAA’s information and the way they need to make decisions. 

Who do you look to as a role model and why?

I’d say my biggest role model was Margaret Davidson, who passed away in 2017. She had a huge influence on me just through her approach to life. And the other one I’d say is Mary Glackin. I was at USGS for a decade before I came to NOAA, and I moved in part because I saw women in leadership positions in this agency. I saw NOAA making choices to put women scientists in positions where they have the ability to make an impact and be influential. So I really appreciate those women for their influence, and both of them work so hard, which is a huge value of mine. They were, and are, tough under pressure. I think that’s an important piece, because we do get hit with a lot of situations. Margaret and Mary were great strategic thinkers, and yet they always gave me time to bounce ideas on them. 

What does success mean to you? 

I read articles on what defines success — it’s such an elusive term. In the end, people say the same things – balancing work and family, living life, pursuing passions – but it’s also doing work that excites you. I light up when I talk about my work — I also light up when I talk about my child and husband —  but I still light up about the kind of work that I do that helps people and really is the definition of public service. When I get into a difficult situation, I always ask, “how does this look for our customer, and what do we need to do here that allows our customer to get the best they can get?” 

What was the best advice ever given to you that helped you become successful? 

The best advice is also the advice that is hardest to take. Rick Spinrad was the assistant administrator for OAR when I was there. He said to me, “Ellen, you need to come to me with solutions. Don’t just come to me with problems — you’ve got to use your intellect to wrap your head around the problem and come up with solutions.” That’s been really valuable to me. 

What’s been your favorite (or proudest) moment in your career so far? 

There are a few proud moments. I had such an adrenaline rush when I was a seagoing oceanographer. When we were at sea, collecting sediment samples, and running coring apparatus — that was a great time. In service delivery/customer engagement — when I’m out talking to customers, and they’re saying they really appreciate and rely on the work NOAA is doing — those are really proud moments for us.  

Most recently and more personally, my father asked me if I would give a talk to his group. About 100 people showed up in the room, and I was amazed that so many people were interested in climate science and the National Climate Assessment! At the end, my dad said, “Gosh Ellen, that was wonderful. How long have you been public speaking?” I thought to myself, well, about 30 years! It was a recent proud moment because my dad was able to see what I do for a living!

What do you hope to accomplish in the future? What do you hope the future for women in science looks like?

There’s a set of core values I use for the future, and they come down to words around working hard, determination, and this whole idea of digging in and being committed and passionate. I keep coming back to working hard — there’s no other way of working for the future. We’re going to have to take a look at the hard problems. It’s not going to be easy. My daughter, who is in 2nd grade, asked me, “I just want to know, is it hard to be a scientist?” And I said, well it’s not easy — nothing in this life is easy. These problems that we’re looking at on this earth are hard. It’s going to take ingenuity and innovation, and it’s going to take hard work and grit. I also hope it’s going to take some introspection on the part of each person. Everybody needs to take a look at their career and make sure that their choices are staying true to their heart. I think that’s the only thing that’s going to motivate us to keep going.

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