Point of Beginning

Web Exclusive: Behind the Scenes with Juliana Blackwell

January 29, 2009
In January 2009, Juliana P. Blackwell was named the new director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Geodetic Survey (NGS). She is the first woman to head the nation's oldest federal science agency. ...




In January 2009, Juliana P. Blackwell was named the new director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Geodetic Survey (NGS). She is the first woman to head the nation's oldest federal science agency, which was established by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807 as the Survey of the Coast. POB magazine recently spoke with Blackwell to learn more about her background and her vision for the future.

POB: How did you first get involved with NGS?

Blackwell: I joined the Commissioned Officer Corps of NOAA in January 1990, 18 months after graduating from Tufts University with a degree in mathematics. My first assignment was as junior officer onboard the NOAA ship Ferrel conducting ship operations in support of environmental monitoring projects in coastal waters. I discovered the National Geodetic Survey while looking at available officer billets in NOAA for my next assignment and for opportunities to apply my math background. I began my job as NGS Geodetic Operations and Liaison with a one-year field assignment on NGS leveling, baseline calibration and GPS field surveys. It was a great way to learn about NGS-from the ground up.

My last NOAA Corps experience was on board the NOAA ship Whiting conducting hydrographic surveys for nautical chart updates. I joined NGS full time in 1996 and have held various positions since then, including Height Modernization Program manager and chief of the Observation and Analysis Division (one of six divisions within NGS).

POB: Few women worked for the NGS when you began your career. Was that challenging for you?

Blackwell: I was the only woman at NGS on the field survey parties at the time, though there were others before me. I really never felt intimidated by that fact-it was a very positive experience. I felt very much accepted as a member of “the Survey.” Learning the art and science of geodetic surveying was the challenge.

POB: What accomplishments best define your career at NGS?

Blackwell: It’s been an evolution. I’m proud of the diversity that I’ve had within my career-starting in the field, learning the ropes, understanding the nuts and bolts of surveying to form a basis of understanding of NGS’s mission and the products and services we provide to our customers.

Height Modernization Program manager was the position where it all came together for me. Height modernization enables the determination of elevations quickly and efficiently using new technologies-primarily GPS (and now GNSS). That is, instead of conventional line-of-sight leveling surveys, stakeholders can now use GPS to determine heights quickly and accurately. As program manager, I worked closely with numerous state and local governments, academic institutions and the private sector promoting the benefits of NOAA’s Height Modernization Program. My work with Height Modernization took me outside of my previous realm of field survey operations and “how” we do surveys into ‘Wow! Here’s what we do for people.’ By tying together the technical concepts of height modernization with the benefits and applications of the program, I expanded NOAA’s Height Modernization Program significantly.

POB: What is your vision for the NGS going forward?

Blackwell: For starters, to implement the efforts which have been collaboratively identified in NGS’s Ten-Year Plan. The main operational NGS initiatives include modernizing the geometric datum, modernizing the geopotential datum and migrating the Coastal Mapping Program into an integrated ocean and coastal mapping program. As part of the NGS executive steering committee, I recently worked with David Zilkoski [the former NGS director] and others within NGS to develop the Ten-Year Plan so that NGS could better focus our efforts both internally and externally on what we’re going to be doing within the next 10 years and make sure we’re operating as efficiently and effectively as possible. I plan to drive these initiatives to realizations and ensure that NGS truly identifies with customers’ needs and strives to meet those needs.

I envision an expansion of geodetic and remote sensing research opportunities and sharing of expertise through strategic collaborations and partnerships. 

The modernization of the geopotential datum involves the airborne gravity collection that we’re doing as part of our GRAV-D effort-Gravity for the Redefinition of the American Vertical Datum. Also a key component of NOAA’s Height Modernization efforts, GRAV-D will use airborne gravity tied to terrestrial gravity collection to provide an improved geoid model, which will provide GPS elevations related to sea level through a model rather than having to do data collection through leveling or line-of-sight type of work. GRAV-D is a long-term initiative that is part of the Ten-Year Plan that we released in 2008. We know the technology is available. We’ve researched that it’s a viable thing to use. And now we’re getting our feet wet in collecting the data to be able to develop guidelines and specifications for others so that they can do the same thing and contribute to the effort of GRAV-D.

My goal is to lead NGS in completing our current goals and to identify new opportunities to utilize technology and expertise to meet the future needs of our nation.