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MEET: Charles "Charly" Alexander

Operations Division Chief, NOAA Integrated Ocean Observing System Program

I manage and execute a technical portfolio for the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS®) that is focused on ocean observations, particularly improving user access to these data via tools and technologies that allow key data sets to be used together. The job includes chairing a cross-NOAA team of senior scientists and information technology managers who help steer our program and working with a broad IOOS community across the nation.

Charly Alexander


What do you like most about working at NOS?

My favorite things about working at NOAA are first and foremost the people. NOAA represents a remarkable array of dedicated scientists, managers, and administrators who work together to understand our planet better. In the course of my 25-year career, it never ceases to amaze me how motivated and excited everyone is to be doing the work they are doing. It is inspiring. I also think our mission – understanding our planet – is very gratifying. Whenever I get the chance to tell someone where I work and what I do, they invariably say – “Wow, that’s pretty cool. You’re lucky.” My reply is always – “Yeah, it is pretty cool. And yeah, I am.”

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is two-fold. The first challenge is keeping up with observing and information technologies. This is a rapidly changing and evolving realm with lots of specialized and confusing jargon. Understanding how to successfully link new technologies to a requirement is a constant challenge.

Second is choosing the right opportunities to advance our work. Ocean observations and the attendant data management infrastructure are a vast enterprise which far exceeds the resources we have for coordination and collaboration. Our team therefore tries to select opportunities that will result in the broadest benefit to the entire IOOS community.

What is your educational background?

I have a B.A. in Biology/Geology from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and an M.S. in Marine Science and a Master of Public Administration from Louisiana State University (LSU). In my senior year at Whitman, I was selected as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow for a year of independent study (researching Arctic Canada and the fur trade). In my second year at LSU, I was selected as a Sea Grant Fellow by NOAA and worked on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Assistant to then Congressman John Breaux (D-LA). Upon graduating from LSU, I was selected as a Presidential Management Intern by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and joined NOAA.

What inspired your interest in the ocean and coasts?

Jacques Cousteau was certainly a factor while I was a kid in high school. All of his TV specials were riveting and he influenced an entire generation. I also took a marine biology class in college that took me to the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Marine Lab in Puget Sound for two weeks and I was hooked. After finishing college, I decided that coastal management rather than research science would be a good career and headed to Louisiana State University for graduate school.

How did you end up working at NOAA?

I joined NOAA headquarters as a Presidential Management Intern in 1985. Upon completing this two-year program, I became a permanent federal employee. My career has included a variety of positions: conducting a range of interdisciplinary applied analysis work on coastal ocean resources such as estuaries, wetlands, nutrients, and shellfish; a 10-year gig managing an interdisciplinary technical portfolio for the National Marine Sanctuary Program (which included a six-month detail in Hawaii focused on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands); and then my current position with IOOS.

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

I think the most important advice would be to follow your passions. There are so many different types of jobs in the ocean world that I know about now, but certainly did not know about when I was a kid. You actually can make a living – a pretty good one – studying birds or fish or ocean temperatures or thunderstorms.

The second would be that there are lots of ways to contribute. You don’t have to be a scientist or an engineer to be part of the ocean realm. You can be an administrator, an accountant, or a boat driver. We need everyone if we are going to be successful.

What is the most interesting/important thing you've learned while working at NOAA?

Hmmm – it is hard to choose, as I have learned many things during my 25-year career. Perhaps among the most interesting are that you can map the bottom of the ocean from a satellite (using sea surface height or altimetry) and that great white sharks are warm-blooded animals (in some ways, very much like us).

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned at NOAA is to be patient and persistent. Good science is what we need and that often takes time. Just look at the emergence of climate science in the past few years—much of this science has been, and continues to be, pioneered by NOAA people.