Studying Arctic Ice Caps from the Capitol
For so many, an interest in scientific research charts a clear path: undergraduate degree, master’s, doctorate, research, professorship. But Cynthia Suchman ’90 launched onto that path not knowing exactly where it would lead, open to the turns it took and the possibilities it opened — away from what’s most conventional.
It’s an attitude that landed her where she is now, living in northern Virginia and working as the program director for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Arctic Natural Sciences Program. The job allows her to work at the intersection of preeminent research coming to her from all across environmental disciplines. The NSF receives peer-reviewed proposals for research, and program directors, like Suchman, read and assess them to reccomend where to award grant funding.
“You’re able to see the whole field,” said Suchman, “and that’s really exciting because it means we learn all the time.”
Jack of All Trades at NSF Suchman’s training in the liberal arts undoubtedly prepared her for her current role, which draws on the ability to learn and analyze information without necessarily being an expert in any one research topic.
“Liberal arts is perfect as a program officer because you get all of this information coming to you all the time, and it’s well more than you can absorb,” said Suchman. “My job in general, you could describe as taking a graduate level course in whatever your science is all the time because people are sending you their best ideas,” she said.
The career is fitting for Suchman because it nurtures her innate desire to constantly learn. “It’s so exciting to have a job where I am always learning new stuff,” she said. “I am so privileged to have that in my day to day — when you think about a career, that is hard to maintain.”
Yet, maintain she has. Suchman herself describes a life of exploring jobs in her field, spending time as a research fellow and a professor, yet always circling around and back to NSF. She first landed there in 2000 as an assistant director on the Biological Oceanography Program. It was, though she didn’t realize it at the time, a dream job in Suchman’s book.
Paving the Path as it Forms Suchman’s formal training is in oceanography. She graduated from Amherst with a double major in biology and English, spending her summers doing research in marine labs and a semester in maritime studies at Williams Mystic. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in biological oceanography from the University of Rhode Island.
“As an undergrad, Cynthia sought out a wide range of friends, mentors and classes. She did not feel constrained by how things should be done, and simply followed her curiosity, including nurturing a love for nature,” said her close friend Betsy Lake ’89 about how Suchman navigated her interests and fed her curiosity in school.
“After graduation, Cynthia continued pursuing intellectual and nature challenges, mirroring that Amherst experience,” Lake said. “She has sought out new and challenging jobs over the years, some in far flung places (hello, Alaska!), while continuing to nurture her outdoor adventure spirit — with trips, hikes and sports challenges all over the world. I remember many a hike and adventure where we contemplated life, careers and relationships,” Lake added.
In exploring all that Amherst had to offer across disciplines, Suchman landed in Professor of Neuroscience Steve George’s neurobiology course, which she now looks back on as among her favorites. He remembers Suchman for the curiosity she brought and that she took the class not to meet some requirement or check a box, but simply to learn more. “It’s tricky for someone at Amherst to be more science-oriented than pre-med,” he said. “She definitely had that genuine interest … and she did great in the course.”
Suchman describes her formative experiences with marine studies as key junctures that opened up new possibilities. Arriving at Mystic, Suchman held a great curiosity for the subject without much insider understanding of how and where to nurture it; the semester away helped change that. “The interest was there, and it opened doors. The path was made because once you take one opportunity it leads to another opportunity,” she said.
After, and because of, her semester away, Suchman spent a summer researching with established marine scientists Ed Houde and Denise Brietburg at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, which in turn paved the way for a summer volunteer experience in the Arctic and sparked further postdoctoral opportunities.
She followed this trajectory not because she had a distinct course in mind but because she simply pursued what seemed interesting at the time. “When you look backwards, it’s like you’re telling this success story, but for every opportunity, there are five cool opportunities where you’re told no, or that you were the second choice for it, but if one of those had said yes, you would have taken a totally different path,” Suchman said.
It’s a fitting approach for someone who, at her core, simply loves learning and has an ever-curious drive to discover; her rationale for pursuing a Ph.D. was not because it fit neatly into her carefully mapped plan, but simply because: “I wanted to be intellectually engaged, and I wanted to keep learning. For me, it was like, ‘Wow, this is a really cool field and I really want to do this in the next decade, and it will be really interesting and I’ll get to work in a marine lab and just learn lots of new cool stuff,’” Suchman said. “That’s basically what I did, and it was awesome, but I didn’t go to graduate school thinking, ‘This is my career; this is what I want to do when I grow up.’”
Once she completed her Ph.D. and the time came to begin exploring careers, Suchman found herself at another juncture, unsure of where to go next, so she sent out a variety of applications to see what stuck. She ended up as a marine policy fellow in the House of Representatives Committee on Resources. Thus began Suchman’s lifetime of working at the intersection of science and government.
At the House of Representatives, Suchman’s job demanded an entirely different skill set than the one she had just spent the past decade honing as a Ph.D. student. For her new job, she was putting together short, simple writing on a new topic every day for a general audience, rather than composing the thorough, in-depth and expert research required by a Ph.D. program. Despite this stark shift, Suchman felt the job was critical to expand what she perceived as potential opportunities for her. “It broadened my view of what you can use your science training for. Academia is an ivory tower, even in the sciences. It’s great, but it’s only one thing one can do with that [degree],” she said.
*Arctic Intrigue * Suchman now works as a federal employee in a position that’s much more closely suited to her skill set. Despite her expertise and formal training in oceanography, Suchman held an interest in Arctic systems since she was in her twenties. As a graduating Amherst senior, she became fed up with the unanswerable, and inevitable, question of “What are you doing next year?”
Desperate for any answer, she applied to volunteer with the Student Conservation Association, which places students at research sites with federal agencies. She landed at a site in Alaska, a wildlife refuge on a river that opens up into Bristol Bay. It was less than a year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the location was so remote that it received supplies and mail by float plane every two weeks, Suchman said.
After never having spent much time camping, Suchman spent four months that summer living out of a tent and seeing few people — she was shocked flying into the Chicago airport, where she describes seeing more people in one place than she had seen over the past four months. It was an invaluable experience for Suchman, one that came out of unplanned, college student desperation and one with a lasting impact on her career today. “It made Alaska a very real place for me,” she said. And now, her job as director of Arctic programs makes it more real than ever, as a changing climate brings higher temperatures and melting ice. The field is “super exciting and super terrifying to be working in right now,” Suchman said.
Suchman stands under two jawbones of a blowhead whale on site in Utqiagvik, Alaska in 2011 (when it was known as Barrow, Alaska). “I never expected to be in an office,” she said. Though she now works behind a desk in Washington D.C., site visits like this are a redeeming way for her to get back in the field
Navigating New Climates, Political and Environmental The NSF is responding to the changing times, expanding the program and allocating funding into a new program with an interdisciplinary focus called Navigating the New Arctic. While the job of the foundation is to collect the best ideas from a scientific community, it can also stimulate research in areas it deems particularly important by cordoning off money in this way.
Suchman feels lucky, too, that under a federal administration bent on defunding and dismantling institutions surrounding science, the NSF has not yet felt the crippling effects of defunding. “There is a disconnect between day-to-day politics and what is happening at my agency, and I am happy about that,” she said.
Yet, Suchman does worry about her position in relation to politics; the work she does only goes so far to push people into action regarding the climate crisis. “Climate change in the Arctic is so remote and removed from the general day to day that it doesn’t feel as real to the general population. That’s sort of a challenge,” she said. “My concern is that it is so far removed from what is happening in people’s backyards that it’s really hard to convey what those consequences might be.”
Suchman, like many scientists, struggles to grasp what role she may have in conveying and ultimately motivating a public audience toward change. There is a fine line between scientist and advocate, she explained, and it can be tricky to cross it ethically, let alone effectively. “Many scientists care passionately about [climate change], but we are not necessarily sure about what we can do,” she said, explaining that when it comes to personal action “this is not what I know how to do, [but] tell me what to do, and I will do it.” She added, though, that there is a dire need for action when it comes to enacting climate policy. “Talking about science, that is not enough,” she said.
Of course, science is only a piece of the puzzle, but it is an invaluable one. In the fight against climate change, scientists need to do the research that then informs climate policy, which needs activists to advocate for and help create action. And along that line, there needs to be someone behind the science research, funding it and propelling it forward into the areas where it’s most needed. “Working to move the field forward, even in a more facilitative role, is something that can get me up in the morning and get me excited to do what I’m doing long term,” said Suchman. “It’s not something I just woke up one day and knew. I found my way there.”