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Bob Rosenbauer Retires as Science Center Director
On January 7, 2017, Robert (Bob) Rosenbauer retired from the USGS after more than 42 years of public service. His last position was director of the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center in Santa Cruz, California. As an emeritus scientist, he continues to advise the new director, Guy Gelfenbaum.
Before serving as science center director, Rosenbauer had a long career as a geochemist. In recent years, his research included: reconstructing past geologic environments and changes in nearshore ecosystem processes using chemical markers; storing carbon dioxide (the main cause of global warming) in deep reservoirs on land and beneath the seafloor; investigating the sources of tar balls found on California beaches; tracking the extent and fate of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico and San Francisco Bay; and mixing of groundwater and seawater near different shorelines.
In this edited interview, Bob reflects on his challenges and successes managing a science center, and the highlights of his USGS career.
In 2010, you volunteered to be the fourth temporary science center director in less than a year, which got off to a rocky start.
We had gotten our budget really late in the year, and [USGS budget analyst] Paulette [Zamora] looked at it and told me, “Okay, where are you going to start making cuts?” And I’m going, “What? Is this the first thing I have to do?” But I was really impressed with how well everybody responded. Sadly, our budget from Congress has continued to decline but folks are incredibly entrepreneurial and accomplish some amazing things with limited resources.
How did you decide to stay on as permanent science center director?
As I started to interact with the folks that would become my peers, it gradually dawned on me that I could do this job, and there are aspects of it that I think I would actually enjoy and places I could contribute. I had some reservations about making a permanent change, but I was getting more knowledgeable about the breadth of science within the center, seeing some opportunities, and feeling I could provide some long-needed stability to center management. So, I acquiesced. It was not a position to which I had ever aspired, but I cannot think of a better way to have capped my career with the USGS.
At one of our first meetings, I was surprised when you asked me what I wanted to do here.
Actually, I’ve asked other people that same question, as they’re going through transitions. As projects end you could easily say, “You’re now assigned to this project, and you’ve got to support it.” I don’t think that’s the best way to go. At least I want to find out what a person’s preferences are, where they think their skills and expertise are, and where they would want to maybe improve on that expertise, and what it is they would want to do. Matching existing staff expertise with center needs was often challenging, but accommodating an individual’s preference was always a factor as long as it fit into our overall staffing structure. On the other hand, folks needed to know that they were being held accountable and that there were consequences for not performing.
What was a typical day like?
From the night before and on my commute to the office, I would think and plan out my day. But the moment I walked in the door, within that hour, there’s usually something that needs immediate attention and just turns your whole day sideways. So it’s hard to plan short term. You have to respond often and quickly with a high degree of uncertainty, which is very disquieting coming from a science background, where you want to do things in a very systematic, logical way. Well you try and do that, but you often don’t have all the information you need to either respond or to make some decision, so you get as much as you can, and you make a decision and move forward.
What were your major accomplishments as science center director?
I came in with the goal of rebuilding the marine geology part of the center. So I made a big effort to recruit [USGS geophysicist] Danny Brothers to be the centerpiece of that. When I'd go out to the [USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center], I always made a point of touching base with Danny. It wasn’t that much of a tough sell, because there are many large and interesting problems out here on the West Coast.
Another accomplishment is nurturing along the climate change impact work, the great work that [USGS geologist] Patrick Barnard and others are doing. We’ve tried to really make that grow. He has taken it and made it even bigger than I thought it would ever be, in high demand and largely funded [from non-USGS sources].
The third thing is adding some stability to the support side of the staff. I felt like there should be permanency to some of the support staff, a tier level that would have the corporate knowledge on how we acquire data, and then beneath that level would be rotational [short-term positions].
What unfinished items did you leave for Guy?
“Where are the next research directions going to be?” The dilemma is anytime you start anything new, you’ve got to wind something else down. It's tough to start new work, unless you somehow have new funding come in to do that work.
Any advice for Guy?
Communication is key. And that’s of course both ways. Make sure that he listens to staff, actually really listens at all different levels, and really absorb that. Take in that information. And then communicate back to appropriate levels. I’ve said this many times, but I was always amazed at what people knew, and then I was surprised at what they did not know. Those communications, that transparency, whenever possible, of what you’re doing and what decisions you’re making.
What’s your background?
I’m from the East Coast, from a town called Hackensack in New Jersey. Went to prep school in New York City at Fordham Prep, went to Holy Cross for my undergraduate work, and then went to the University of Southern California and Stanford for graduate work.
Your degrees were in geochemistry.
They were initially in chemistry, and then geochemistry.
How did you start working at the USGS?
I was accompanying a fellow graduate student going to the USGS for an interview. I was just going along for the ride, actually. While he was sitting there, I ended up talking to [USGS then-branch chief] Dave Scholl. Then Dave called [USGS geochemist] Jim Bischoff, [previously one of Rosenbauers’s professors at USC,] and said, “There’s a guy down here that says he knows you. Do you want to hire him?” And Jim said, “Sure.” That was back in 1974.
Jim and I worked together for close to 30 years, initially working on deep-sea hydrothermal systems, and the possibility of mining manganese nodules. Then I ended up building these experimental laboratories with unique capabilities to mix rock and fluids and gases, and take samples of the fluid and gas, with time to monitor the chemical reactions. We made a lot of neat discoveries about hydrothermal systems over the years. Later, I went to work with Keith Kvenvolden, and learned some organic geochemistry. Over the years, I became increasingly independent and picked up other flavors of geochemistry and isotope geochemistry, as all of it applies to geologic processes.
What’s next for you?
I’m trying to help Guy with the transition as much as possible. He’s got a lot of questions, and it’s just a lot of information that I still need to hand off to him.
Once he feels confident that he doesn’t need my support anymore, I intend to disappear for about six months or so, then return as an emeritus. Then find something to do in combination with the experimental lab in Menlo Park and our new organic geochemistry lab in Santa Cruz.
Personally, I have a little baby grand piano that I have dismantled and am rebuilding, and hopefully will get back to actually playing. Then there is building my model train empire. I first have to finish off the room, about 1,000 square feet in the basement. It’s going to be modeled after the old Hinton Division of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. And there is five years of deferred maintenance around the house to keep me busy until my wife retires in another year or so when we intend to travel a bit.
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Bob Rosenbauer Retires as Science Center Director
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