Dr. Genevra Harker-Klimeš' background in physical aspects of the ocean, like waves, tides, currents, and interaction with the atmosphere, led her to her current position as the division director for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s (PNNL’s) Coastal Sciences Division. At PNNL, she led a Department of Energy initiative to support the development of environmental technologies for marine renewable energy devices. In her education, she studied coastal landforms, ocean physics, and how the color of the ocean relates to the particles, phytoplankton, or dissolved plant matter that it contains. Before coming to PNNL, she worked as an environmental consultant as offshore wind technology development began in earnest. Before that, she worked for five years at an oceanographic survey company taking measurements on the ocean across the world. She has a PhD and MS in physical oceanography from Bangor University, Wales, and a BS in physical geography from the University of Sheffield, England. She is also studying for an LLM in energy law and policy from the University of Dundee, Scotland.
What inspired you to work in STEM?
I love problem-solving. The great thing about science is that you get to find ways to understand situations and solve the problems that arise from them. Plus, I’ve always loved the ocean, geography, and landforms. I love the feeling of outdoor space and nature. I wanted to travel, and oceanography allowed me to study ocean conditions all over the world from Britain to Norway to Africa to New Zealand and now Seattle, Washington. I liked observing the differences and the similarities between how the ocean behaves depending on location. And of course, it was nice when my studies took me somewhere warm!
What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I enjoy being able to take a step back from a singular focus to see where the industry as a whole is going, so we can use what we already have as well as what we learn as we move forward. Often in industry, you’re looking at a specific problem and trying to improve what’s right there in front of you. Here I can look at challenges with a broader cross-section of knowledge and bring in other expertise from a vast base to put all those pieces together so we can move research and technology forward by leaps and bounds.
How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
When I was at school in Britain, there was an idea that if you were academically bright, you would do science. That expectation and encouragement were the same whether you were male or female. My father lived his life with the belief you can do anything you set your mind to, so this idea percolated with me. It was something that returned to me later as I became more involved in a very male-dominated field. When I worked on oil rigs, I was often the only woman out of 100 people. I was completely qualified because of my education and experience, but people would tell me they wanted a “proper engineer.” It took resilience to say, “I know what I’m doing. Give me a chance to prove I should be here” on one boat only to say it again on the next boat! It takes a certain belief to know that yes, I can do it. You have to put in the work to have the right expertise first, but there is an element of being allowed to believe you can do something that leads to more engagement.
Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Learn perseverance. Be open to new ideas and making connections. You often find a path you like from a surprising suggestion or a discussion that you weren’t necessarily seeking, so be open to what others are saying. It’s also essential to focus on your growth as a whole person, not just a scientist. For example, I was a shy person who found it difficult to speak with people. One of the most helpful things for dealing with this was the tricks I learned in my drama class. It wasn’t that I was ever pretending that I was another person, but in drama, I practiced the ability to put on a persona and convince others to believe I was a certain character temporarily. It helped me later to see how I could transform my nervousness into being efficient or learn to portray calmness to have others take me seriously. Drama helps you be aware of how you come across. That’s an invaluable skill that’s helped me to communicate well. When you’re on a rust-bucket ship in the middle of high waves with crew members who don’t speak English, you have to communicate very quickly when something goes wrong, and you have to communicate clearly so no one gets hurt.
When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I love music, especially singing and piano. I like walking. When I do have free time, I enjoy spending most of it with my two young children. Free time is not something I have a lot of because I’m also three years into a four-year program to earn an LLM in international law and policy. It makes me busy, but I see the ways that this education will help me put my technical knowledge in the right context to reach government, investors, and policy makers. Changing policy is the way we can put technical advances into practice. I’m willing to sacrifice my free time to reach that goal.
Learn more about our programs & resources for women and girls in STEM at http://www.energy.gov/women