Feature image: Photo credit: NSF/Sandy Schaeffer Photography
I spoke recently to three women with diverse STEM backgrounds, who currently have taken on different leadership roles at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), about how they have navigated their career trajectories and about their leadership styles and visions for their programs. Next, meet Dr. Karen Marrongelle, Chief Operating Officer (COO).
Maintaining a Culture of Innovation while Consolidating and Coordinating Operations
Dr. Karen Marrongelle accepted her role as NSF’s chief operating officer (COO) in August 2021, following her three-year leadership of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, where she championed funding to increase equity and inclusion in STEM education and expanded NSF’s STEM education portfolio. She is the fourth woman, among a total of fifteen NSF permanent COOs (previously known as deputy directors), appointed since 1951. Prior to her tenure at NSF, she was dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of math and statistics at Portland State University, and she also served as vice chancellor of the Oregon University System.
As a first-generation college student, she learned to navigate a personally uncharted path in higher education, a skill she has been able to apply to later stages of her career. She was fortunate to have role models and generous mentors like Joan Ferrini-Mundy, a prominent math educator, who rotated among several leadership roles at NSF. While Dr. Marrongelle was attending an NSF conference as a grantee, a program officer suggested that she, too, apply for a rotating position. She did so, and successfully becoming a rotator was a major inflection point in her career. At the time she was on her way to attaining tenure at Portland State, was helping to build a PhD program, and was very satisfied with her research, mentoring, and teaching. At NSF, she discovered a new focus, suddenly able to play an instrumental role in directing STEM education by helping to synthesize and refine ideas and then pushing them forward. She found it thrilling.
Dr. Marrongelle has participated in several leadership development opportunities, such as those offered by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and she encourages other women to engage in support networks and professional development opportunities, including those that are gender-specific. As she has risen in leadership at NSF, she has encountered several major learning curves, including ones that are most germane to women leaders, such as dealing with impostor syndrome. Most recently she has realized the importance of becoming an adaptable leader. During the pandemic, she has found it critical to be more available and more intentional about communicating and making quick decisions. Another challenge has been learning to navigate the cultural idiosyncrasies of a complex organization. She observes: “As you take on more leadership positions, you have to explicitly think about cultural [organizational] idiosyncrasies, adjust to and address them, and think about things that you want to change that are couched in culture.”
When I asked Dr. Marrongelle specifically about the idiosyncrasies of NSF culture, she noted that the innovation and decentralization that mark the Foundation’s culture are key strengths, but she acknowledged that they can lead to inefficiencies, a crucial paradox to keep in mind during this period of anticipated growth. To manage this precipice successfully, she has set a major task for herself: guiding the organization so that it maintains its culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, while efficiently consolidating and coordinating its operations. And reflecting on her longstanding commitment, she also asserts that she wants NSF to be intentional about paying attention to equity and inclusion as it grows. She expects that a key challenge for her will be balancing the typical consensus-driven decision-making at NSF with one that must sometimes be more top down.
Her aspirations for NSF are reflected in the new directorate, TIP, which was announced by NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in March 2022. The mission of TIP is to catalyze diverse teams of researchers, practitioners, and entrepreneurs to pursue innovative technologies that address our foremost societal and economic challenges, and to accelerate the rate at which research results are translated from the lab to the market and society. Dr. Marrongelle notes that this focus on use-inspired and translational research is a key priority of the current NSF director. The new directorate would intentionally tap into the vast talent base that exists throughout our nation and which has been underrepresented in the scientific enterprise. TIP will achieve these goals by intentionally partnering with NSF’s other directorates and by forging new public and private partnerships spanning government, academia, industry, nonprofits, communities of practice, and civil society.
Patricia Soochan is a Program Officer and member of the multidisciplinary team at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with primary responsibility for the development and execution of the Inclusive Excellence (IE1&2) initiative. Previously she had lead responsibility for science education grants to primarily undergraduate institutions, a precursor of IE. She has served as a councilor for the Council on Undergraduate Research and is a contributing writer for AWIS Magazine and the Nucleus. Prior to joining HHMI, she was a science assistant at the National Science Foundation, a science writer for a consultant to the National Cancer Institute, and a research and development scientist at Life Technologies. She received her BS and MS degrees in biology from George Washington University. She has been an AWIS member since 20003. (Editor’s Note: The contents of this article are not affiliated with HHMI.)