by Carolyn Shea
Timi Vann '91 has a big job in a big organization that addresses big societal issues: orchestrating the myriad collaborative efforts taking place in NOAA's western region, an 11-state territory that covers 1.2 million square miles and is home to 69 million people—nearly a quarter of the U.S. population.
NOAA (pronounced "noah") stands for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the federal government's premier science and environmental agencies—specifically the one focused on understanding the planet's atmosphere and oceans.
Perhaps its most familiar unit is the National Weather Service, but NOAA employees work to supply citizens, planners, emergency personnel and other stakeholders—like water managers and fishing and agricultural communities—with a wide range of services, from generating daily weather forecasts and lifesaving severe storm and tsunami warnings to monitoring the climate and supporting maritime commerce, fisheries management and coastal restoration.
Within Vann's purview—one of eight collaboration regions in the country, and the largest geographically—is an extensive partnership network that keeps the agency informed about priorities, collects data, conducts science outreach and cutting-edge research and helps manage coastal zones and ecological reserves. Because it encompasses such great physiographic diversity—taking in mountains, deserts, rainforests, and shorelines from the Rockies to the Pacific—as well as great cultural and economic diversity, it is also one of the most complex to analyze.
Vann is the coordinator of this intricate network, officially named the Western Regional Collaborative Team. "I manage the activities of 17 members of the team who represent different service branches of NOAA," she says. Among them are experts in weather, satellites and data, Earth science research, fisheries and ocean services. "Yes, it's a big job," she confirms matter-of-factly. "We have a diverse geography with a diverse constituency and to add to the complexity, we have one of the largest concentrations of the NOAA workforce. But it's a really fascinating job. I get to interact with some of the most talented and interesting people on the planet."
In talking to Vann, one gets the sense that she could singlehandedly field any situation. The mother of identical twin toddlers, she plays a pivotal role in enabling all the different elements of NOAA's Gordian institution to come together efficiently and harmoniously in order to share knowledge and meet the differing needs of constituents.
"We have a forum to talk about priority issues and needs, hear from different stakeholders and find out what constituents are asking for in terms of NOAA science and services," she says. An example of the region's cooperative effort centers on the issue of western water and fisheries. "We have a whole part of NOAA doing work in water issues," Vann says. "We've been pretty successful in collaborating on linking some of our hydrological science with some of our marine science around ecological needs for water." This affects everyone from resource users and managers to researchers—and like other efforts, illustrates the agency's desire "to be relevant and responsive to the taxpayers that fund us," she says.
A native of Seattle, Vann earned her a bachelor's degree in economics from Evergreen, at one point studying with Tom Womeldorff, who she credits as being "most influential" in "focusing me and encouraging me to test boundaries. He really put me on a positive trajectory." She went on to earn her master's in anthropology from the University of Oklahoma, near her Cherokee relatives' homestead.
She was then selected as a postgraduate environmental management fellow for the Department of the Army and spent three years at Fort Lewis, where she won plaudits for her efforts in managing archaeological sites and historic buildings, as well as for her work as a tribal government liaison. "It was a challenging job, but I had a wonderful mentor there who—as any good mentor does—encouraged me to test boundaries and try new things."
In 2001, she joined NASA headquarters as a program planner in the Earth Science Applications Program, bringing her tribal engagement skills and learning about satellites and remote sensing, since the agency was developing new applications for satellite data for state, local and tribal uses. She later transferred to Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to serve as deputy program manager for NASA's Public Health Applications program, focusing on how to use NASA data to conduct better disease surveillance and environmental health tracking.
She was awarded a one-year competitive NASA Congressional fellowship in 2004 and detailed to the office of U.S. Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.), where she worked for his legislative director and provided policy analysis on a wide range of science and technology issues under the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. During this period, she was involved in writing language for the NASA authorization bill that was enacted into law in 2006 and when Hurricane Katrina struck, she stayed in the Senate office a year longer, working with different agencies, including NOAA, in Gulf Coast response and recovery efforts.
"I absolutely loved it," she says. "It was daunting at first, but as an anthropologist, I'm really a student of human behavior. I worked for Sen. Lott at a very productive time, and I absolutely adore him. He's a real statesman. I was able to set aside stereotypes and through real-life experience, come away with a different perspective. It was a good life lesson."
In 2006, Vann joined the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information service branch of NOAA. A year later, she was tapped to be part of the newly formed Integrated Ocean Observing System program office, and in 2009, she was selected from 320 applicants for her current position, which she saw as an opportunity "to build on what I had developed thus far." She was eight months pregnant when she went for her interview (and thinking, "This might not go well."). After a decade away from Washington state, she was going home again, this time with her husband Brian and her newborn daughters, Sophia and Olivia.
Now based in Seattle, Vann works out of NOAA's Montlake Laboratory at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. She has brought to her career what she learned at Evergreen, an emphasis on "pushing boundaries, exploring, innovating, questioning with purpose, trying to leave the world a better place and a sense of civic duty."
At NOAA, she unifies the people who are working to tackle many of today's greatest challenges: severe weather, natural disasters, climate change, declining biodiversity, ocean acidification. In an era when public sector labor has been increasingly targeted in political discourse and the value and legitimacy of government work called into question, Vann exemplifies the type of public servant who gives her all to ensure government does work for the people. As she says, "Government's not here to solve all the world's problems, but there is a need to have a strong, cohesive government that connects the people who fund us and depend on what we do."