Meet NOAA Corps Lieutenant Commander Nicole Cabana

Former Pilot and Program Manager, National Geodetic Survey

NOAA Corps Lieutenant Commander Nicole Cabana

I flew NOAA's King Air aircraft in support of the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) Remote Sensing Division missions for coastal mapping and emergency response. But I spent about 50 percent of my time in the office, serving as a liaison between the division and the Aircraft Operations Center of NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO). I also managed the Aeronautical Survey Program, a $2.2 million reimbursable program with the Federal Aviation Administration.


What do you like most about working at NOAA?

I love my NOAA Corps career because it is so diverse. I have worked on NOAA ships, as a diver and dive master, as a scientist on marine mammal and marine debris cleanup surveys, and as a pilot on aircraft supporting every NOAA line office. I've worked from the Arctic to South America, sailed through the Panama Canal, and flown nearly the entire U.S. coastline.

What is the goal of the OMAO/NGS partnership in aeronautical surveying?

The goal is for NGS to provide quality control to aeronautical (airport and obstruction survey) data, which the FAA incorporates into its databases and uses for instrument procedure development. The ASP provides quality control of airport surveys and obstacles that are critical to the safety of National Airspace and everyone who flies within it.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The proram I managed and the FAA office we supported went through some major changes, so it was challenging to manage the funding levels. It's also challenging to strengthen the program and build new partnerships with all of the changes that are occurring in FAA. I think once things have settled out, the program will improve.

Another difficult part of my job is balancing work and family. As a NOAA Corps officer with an intensive travel schedule, I am fortunate to have a very supportive family. Still, it is challenging. I want to be 100 percent available to my job and 100 percent available to my family. Since that isn't possible, I do what I can to meet everyone's needs. When I'm not on the road flying, I will take extra time out of my schedule to attend school and childcare events and support my kids. I was also a steering committee member for the NOAA Nursing Mothers Program, which was recognized with a NOAA Administrator's Award for improving workforce efficiency and productivity and increasing support for new parents in the workplace. I hope that my efforts there will help other new parents to find this balancing act a little easier.

What is your educational background?

I have a bachelor of arts in human ecology with a focus on marine biology, a master of science in engineering (GIS/remote sensing), and a master's certificate in project management.

What inspired your interest in the ocean and coasts?

I have always loved the outdoors, and the ocean most of all. I have also always loved science and discovering interesting things about the world around me. The power of the ocean and its mystery (what lurks below that we haven't yet discovered?) are what attract me to it most.

How did you end up working in the NOAA Corps?

I graduated from college in just three years and wanted to take another year to travel and explore before settling into a job. My parents did not approve of that plan, and a friend of my father's introduced me to the NOAA Corps. The Corps seemed like a great way to fulfill my interest in traveling and exploring while also meeting the requirement of having a job and health insurance. When I learned about the NOAA Corps I thought, "This job will pay me to travel and learn about things that I would pay to travel and learn about." So it was a win-win!

What is one of the coolest experiences you've had on the job?

In my first assignment, aboard the NOAA Ship McArthur, we conducted manned submersible research in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. One scientist was a whale shark biologist. As the ship's dive master, I accompanied her and the other scientific divers on an evening dive where we saw about 10 whale sharks – the largest fish in the ocean. The 30-foot-long behemoths swam within 20 feet of us!

What advice do you have for young people wanting a career in the "ocean realm"?

Follow your heart! If you want it, you can do it. This goes for anything: aviation, science, oceanography. It doesn't matter if "ocean-related" jobs are hard to find. If it's what you want, you will find your niche and it will work out. Work hard and keep your eyes open, and it will happen.