Thousands of women at the Department of Commerce make a difference in the lives of Americans every day: fostering economic growth and American competitiveness, making the country ready for and resilient to climate change, and leveraging data to discover solutions to some of our most pressing challenges.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we recognize the achievements of female pioneers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) that help us understand and adapt to a changing planet and improve the health and safety of others. From Eunice Foote, who conducted some of the earliest research on climate-warming gases, to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who pioneered modern computer coding language, some of today’s most important innovations have been made possible by American women in STEM.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we are highlighting two women from the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who are using science and technology to advance understanding of our changing planet and keep people safe during the COVID pandemic and other times of crisis.
To thousands of staff members at NIST, Liz Mackey has been the agency’s trusted authority on COVID-19. As NIST’s Chief Safety Officer, Mackey has delivered fact-filled, clear briefings on the pandemic at frequent all-staff town hall meetings. Describing NIST’s COVID prevention measures while thoroughly answering employees’ questions, Mackey has provided both information and a sense of security to the agency’s employees. When COVID hit, “it was all hands-on deck,” she says. “We assembled a team to develop and manage COVID-19 prevention measures pretty quickly.” She appointed her biosafety experts to monitor and interpret ever-changing information on the virus and industrial hygienists to provide guidance on good ventilation practices to minimize the virus’s spread. “We came up to speed in real-time on what the CDC and the science were saying,” she says. “We had to know the latest and greatest for when we had to go up in front of all of NIST at the town halls.”
Looking beyond the pandemic, Mackey sees a silver lining for the future of the agency. “The pandemic focused people on health and safety.” As more NIST staff members move back to their offices and labs, she hopes this safety-minded focus will translate to everything they do while at work.
As hard as it may be for NIST staff to imagine navigating the pandemic without Mackey’s guidance, Mackey herself will tell you that she never expected to become an expert on employee health and safety.
“There was no grand plan for this,” Mackey says, talking about her career in the safety field. “I was pretty happy as a bench scientist.”
For two decades, a researcher and nuclear chemist, Mackey authored 55 peer-reviewed scientific publications and presented 32 professional talks before her career shift into the safety world. In much of her work, she developed and improved methods that used subatomic particles — known as neutrons – to fire at samples, from soil to marine mammal tissue, and find out what kinds of atoms they are made of – as well as the presence of undesirable contaminants. She also helped develop dozens of reference materials containing well-known amounts of substances such as arsenic, that laboratories can use to ensure they are accurately measuring hazardous materials in the environment. Having received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Boston College and her Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from the University of Maryland, Mackey was inspired by one of the most famous scientists of all time: Marie Curie, a pioneer in radioactivity research and nuclear science in general.
“Nuclear chemistry has been a pretty male-dominated field,” she says, “but Marie Curie was an exception, and she is an inspiration to all nuclear chemists.”
When serving on NIST’s Ionizing Radiation Safety Committee in 2008, Mackey fully realized the importance of a good safety culture at a science laboratory. She thought out loud about new career directions, and former NIST director Willie May offered her the position as the safety program coordinator for the Material Measurement Laboratory, one of NIST’s five major laboratories, in 2010, when he was the director of the laboratory. “Leaving science is a big decision,” she says, but she decided to accept the job. She then became a deputy division chief in 2016, and in 2018, was named Chief Safety Officer for all of NIST.
In her position, Mackey oversees NIST’s safety, health, and environmental management systems. This covers a wide range of areas such as laser safety in labs, hearing safety for workers in noisy environments and setting requirements for design and construction of new projects at NIST. Mackey’s work also extends beyond NIST campus borders, as she oversees the agency’s environmental compliance, such as the management of wastewater and stormwater runoff.
At NOAA, Irene Parker remembers her love for technology starting when she was just a kid, working with her siblings at their family-owned convenience store. “My dad would pay me a dollar per day, and I saved up for about six years and bought my very first computer.”
She still remembers the specs: a Hewlett Packard HP Vectra XM 5/90 Computer DOS 6.22 and Windows 3.11.
“That computer was my baby,” Parker says. “Ever since then, I have been in love with technology and what it can do. I never looked back.”
That early love for technology has paid huge dividends for Parker. On December 5, 2021, she was officially named the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Systems (DAAS) at NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service (NESDIS).
In her role, she is helping to guide the development and deployment of NOAA’s two major satellite programs – the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series (GOES-R) and the upcoming Space Weather Follow-On mission. The latest satellite in the GOES-R series, GOES-T, launched on March 1, 2022, and the next JPSS satellite, JPSS-2, is scheduled to lift off on September 30.
Before assuming her DAAS position at NESDIS, Parker, who has more than 20 years of experience in all facets of information technology, security, enterprise architecture, in both public and private sectors, had been the NESDIS Chief Information Officer.
Her experience ranges from leading IT organizations, managing cyber risks, and implementing science and technology solutions. Her diverse and extensive background in technology leadership and management has and will continue to promote the achievement of the NESDIS portfolio and NOAA strategic goals.
In the official announcement of her DAAS selection, Dr. Steve Volz, the NESDIS Assistant Administrator, said: “I have come to appreciate Irene’s strong and continuous track record of innovation, leadership, and major program oversight and execution. Her experience stepping into a job, taking action, and getting people to work together toward a common goal has been paramount to our continued success and are key characteristics of a successful DAAS.”
Parker, a native of Pakistan, has many years of experience working on interagency tasks for NOAA, as NESDIS often interfaces with NASA, the Department of Defense, and foreign agencies in its work.
She has been the NESDIS lead for coordination with NASA in defining a common approach to the joint-agency missions’ transition to cloud-based data archives and satellite data processing. Parker used her strategic leadership and analysis skills to develop the NESDIS Cloud Strategic Plan and the rollout of the NESDIS Common Cloud framework to support satellite and non-satellite missions.
Additionally, Parker advised NOAA leadership on how to transition to the public cloud, along with working with commercial entities such as Microsoft, Google, and Amazon in enabling NOAA’s technology transition. She established the first NOAA Other Transaction Authority agreement with Google, which explores the use of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to improve satellite data assimilation and critical weather forecasting.
Parker also developed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreements to conduct a proof of concept if commercial cloud services can provide satellite mission management as a service for NOAA legacy polar satellites. She also developed and implemented NOAA’s first Secure Ingest capability that securely brings in both commercial and partner satellite and non-satellite data into NOAA systems via Amazon cloud services.
Before joining the federal government, Parker held senior positions at Deloitte Consulting and Accenture. While in the private sector, she was responsible for process engineering, strategic planning, and business development. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematical Sciences from Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering in Baltimore, MD, and received an Executive Masters in Public Administration from American University.
When it comes to the STEM curriculum, Parker’s encouragement for young girls mirrors what she tells her own teen daughter: “It allows you to explore your creative side in addition to opening doors in the future. There are endless possibilities of what you can do with a STEM background from going into medicine, to being a trader on Wall Street, to becoming an architect or an educator.”
If you are a student looking to follow in Irene and Liz’s footsteps, NOAA and NIST offer excellent opportunities to pursue STEM education and research.
NOAA’s Office of Education provides educational resources and development opportunities for students ranging from pre-K through post-graduate levels. Graduate students are encouraged to apply for several immersive fellowships, such as the Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship, that put them at the center of marine science and policy decision-making in Washington DC. NOAA is also dedicated to sharing the latest climate, ocean, weather, and space science with teachers.
NIST has programs for high-school students, undergraduates, and recent graduates. More information, including eligibility and deadlines, is on NIST’s Student Employment page. The NIST NRC Postdoctoral Research Associateships Program for recent Ph.D. graduates is another great opportunity to explore science and technology careers!