Career Profiles: Peter Griffith

What is your name?

Peter Griffith

Where do you work and what is your role/job title?

I’m Chief Support Scientist for the Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Up until Covid, very much so. I’ve taken a lot of effort through the years to continue to be involved with scientific expeditions. In normal times I have a fair amount of travel and as the project manager I get to go and fly on NASA jets and coordinate with hundreds of science team members who are spread across Canada and Alaska. I sometimes pinch myself because I get to go to some of the most beautiful if rapidly changing, parts of the planet and be involved in coordinating research that has a big impact for human society. It does require a lot of travel, and sometimes that can get to be a drag, but it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing since I started off in a completely different field


Questions about your current Job

How did you go about getting your current job?

I grew up in Central Florida, about 40 miles from Cape Canaveral, on a lake and my favourite thing to do was to swim in the lake- It’s where I learned to snorkel and SCUBA dive. When there were rocket launches, from this lake I could see the Saturn V rockets head off to the Moon. In those days of “The Right Stuff” astronauts I never even thought for a second that I was that sort of person. But I really liked SCUBA diving, so in high school, I got really into SCUBA. In college, I studied botany and zoology and marine biology and my first job out of college was as a scientific diver for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I really liked that sort of “going out into amazing parts of the world” style of life, and of science. I decided that if I wanted to run expeditions, (from what I could tell) I needed a Ph.D. So I actually left the Smithsonian. I went to the University of Georgia and got a Ph.D. in Ecology and my research at that point was more on top of the water – It was in biological oceanography. So I went from in the water to on top of the water. After doing a Ph.D. and a PostDoc where I was very deeply into designing and building the instruments that would go into the water, that led me to a sideways move out of research into a company that was owned by the French Space Agency that was commercialisng technologies developed with the French Space Agency for Earth observation. These were mostly from the water, but also land and also, at that point, from space. So that was my first introduction to remote sensing. I ended up working for them for about ten years and was the head of their American operation. Then one day I got a phone call out of the blue from somebody who was looking for a deputy project manager for a NASA field campaign in Brazil. It was intriguing to think about going to NASA, and at that point, I had 10 years of experience managing groups of programmers and engineers who were developing the observational capabilities for looking at environmental challenges for government, university and commercial customers.

Unrelated to my journey through science I have family and friends in Brazil. I spend a lot of time in Brazil. I speak Portuguese.  And all of a sudden they have this position for someone managing a big field campaign in the Amazon Rainforest. I thought, Ok, I can do that; I can move from my ocean world to the sea of trees that the Amazon consists of. That worked out very well for me and I’ve been at Goddard Space Flight Centre for 20 years now.

Describe a typical day.

When I’m not in the field it is a lot pf work in front of a computer. Whether it’s doing fun stuff like analysing data, or doing really necessary, but not as fun, stuff like building budgets and timelines for projects. One of the things I like is that I get to take most of the training. So I do the wilderness first aid training, I do the wildlife training, we get refresher courses on how to use a shotgun – You have to go through the qualifications to show you can hit a moving target with five shots in less than 45 seconds. There’s a whole lot of moving picees that get put together for one of these expeditions to be conducted with good scientific results and with safety for all the people involved.

When we’re on deployment a typical day is very different. You’ll get up at about 6 in the morning, check some emails, check the weather, confirm with field teams that people are on site for the measurements they’re planning to make that are coordinated with aircraft that will be flying over a particular site that day. We’ll meet with the pilots who will brief us on the operational weather constraints for the aircraft. At the beginning of the ay there are a number of decisions to be made. Ultimately there are a number of people who are involved from the instrument team and the scientists on the ground, to the pilots operating the aircraft. I have to synthesis all that and say:  “OK. Today our priority is to fly, here, here and here and measure this, this, and this, and coordinate it with this particular ground team”. It’s a real complex jigsaw puzzle and it’s one of the most fun things to do.

Are there any elements of your job that you dislike?

Some of the bureaucracy gets to be a drag, but it’s mainly tolerable. There are times when the travel can weigh on a person. It means sometimes 2-3 weeks away, then a week at home and another few weeks away. It can get to be difficult, but it’s also tremendously excited so I’m not really complaining about that.


Questions about education and training

What subjects did you take in school/college and how have these influenced your career path?

In Pre-college education, I had a broad education in liberal arts, math, and science. I think that’s really important. It helps a lot. There’s so much writing involved in being a scientist, the fact that I had to write lots of papers and essays and things like that in high school and college, it helped a lot. The biggest thing from before college that really impacted college and after immediate life as I mentioned before was the SCUBA diving.

Did you take any beneficial extra-curricular projects?

I was really involved with our High-schools outdoor program so we did white-water kayaking, sailing, caving, rock climbing, all those sorts of things. Certainly all the skills involved with those kind of things helped a lot when I went down the expeditions track in life as it turned out.


Questions about yourself

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
I think that at this point there are a number of things that have affected me extraordinarily, which is being able to go into some of the most extraordinary  places on the planet whether it’s the Amazon rainforest, or the coral reefs of the Caribbean or the great Boreal forests of Alaska and Canada. These are deeply impactful experiences, humbling, to have seen some of the splendour of the planet. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have done that. And at the same time to be doing research and development of remote sending capacities that have a big impact, not just on science, but on the decisions people make but on the quality of life for everyone on earth. Working in a field that provides ways to help people is an important motivator. It’s a terrific thing and a great privilege to be involved with this kind of work

What is your dream job?
I think I have my dream job

Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice

One of the things that’s really important to know about the way these big science projects work these days is that there’s a very large number of people involved, and they all come from different backgrounds. So there isn’t a single path to being involved in one of these expeditions. In my own case, there was always a little luck involved, but I was always doing things I really liked. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard. I very often feel like I have a fraction of the intelligence I actually need to be doing the work that I’m doing, but the key to that is always working with other smart people. It turned out that languages were very important. Partly I have the direct application of the Portuguese, but I also speak Spanish so having the ability to work across Latin America was very useful, so I’ll always put in a plug for languages. Part of knowing more than one language is also the comfort of being able to work with people from many national backgrounds. You can walk down a hallway in NASA and hear Spanish, French, German and Chinese and all sorts of language. To me that’s an exciting and an inspiring kind of work environment. So I’d certainly recommend at least one foreign language in whatever you study.