34. Lory Mitchell Wingate: Written in the stars – a career in astronomy

Sue Stockdale talks to Lory Mitchell Wingate, Senior Vice President/Chief Operating Officer at University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) about her love of astronomy, and how she took a leap of faith by leaving a high level position to backpack across the USA in 2008, which ultimately shifted her career in a very visible way.

Lory has over twenty-five years of experience in both for-profit and non-profit companies, and is a successful leader with a history of exceptional performance on complex technical, scientific, and engineering projects that incorporate leading edge technology in all phases of the program and project life cycle.

She has ideated and implemented a unique blend of standard project management and systems engineering processes to achieve optimal science and engineering outcomes through the appropriate process rigor applied to business and proposal development and project management across all disciplines, publishing two books on the methodology for Taylor and Francis/CRC Press: Project Management for Research and Development (2014), and Systems Engineering for Projects (2018).

Lory has a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Information Technology Management and is both a Certified Project Management Professional (PMP®) and an Expert Systems Engineer (INCOSE® ESEP). Lory serves on numerous committees and various panels.

Connect with Lory Mitchell Wingate on Twitter and Instagram  or via LinkedIn or via the Great IT Pro

Connect with Access to Inspiration on social media via Twitter  and Facebook  and Instagram and LinkedIn

Lory Mitchell Wingate transcription

Sue: Hello, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the Access to Inspiration podcast. The show where you can get inspiration from people who may be unlike you. We hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day-to-day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. We also love hearing from you about the impact that these podcasts have on the way you approach life. So do hop on over to Facebook or Twitter and connect with us there. One of the themes we keep coming back to is the idea that if you follow your passion, you can create the career or life that you want. And today’s guest Lory Mitchell Wingate is no exception, starting with a childhood love of astronomy. She has found a way to integrate her passion and work together. She is currently Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at UCAR the university corporation for atmospheric research in the United States. And she has also hiked across America. So I can’t wait to find out more. Welcome to the podcast, Lory.

Lory: [00:01:16] Thank you. It’s very good to be here

Sue: [00:01:18] Now. We’ve got a lot to talk about, I’m sure in the next 25 minutes or so, and I’m particularly interested to discover more about your love of astronomy and perhaps there’s a good [00:01:30] place to start. Where did your interest in astronomy begin?

Lory: [00:01:34] I have a lifelong love of astronomy, but I remember the earliest real interest was when I was in the fourth grade. I had moved to a new location with my family in California, and I really wanted to go to this one elementary school that had a science program. And I was so excited to actually go to that school, which was a public school. And the very first thing I did was tear into that science textbook to look at what I could see in astronomy. And at that time, all you really saw were these little fuzzy bubbles of this is what Venus looks like. This is Mars. And I was so disappointed that that is all I could see in that textbook. But I loved the field and I have always been passionate about astronomy.

Sue: [00:02:22] And was that something that your family had helped you to get interested in? Where did that come from?

Lory: [00:02:27] No, my family didn’t actually, it was really interesting. I couldn’t tell you where that spark emerged from, except for just curiosity about the night sky and just really having an interest in that. Now my family was very much into electronics and they were an engineering focused family. And so maybe some of the interest in technology came from that part of my family, but astronomy was something. That I alone in my family was very passionate and interested in.

Sue: [00:02:56] And then how did you pursue that once you’ve been disappointed by those [00:03:00] books at school, how did you then further your knowledge and your interest?

Lory: [00:03:04] By the time that I, when I was a child and I was actually going to summer camps and things like that, I would always look for those that had some kind of an astronomy element of it. And I spent a lot of time as a child in camp. In these very dark sky areas where we would throw our sleeping bags down on the ground and just watch the sky for hours.

And I just loved that. It was such an amazing feeling. So when I got into college, when I actually went into a college experience, I started taking astronomy classes and that really sparked my interest even more. So I was very fascinated with it. And. Had the opportunity to observe with telescopes and read more about it and learn more about it. And from there, I just went into reading. So reading became my passion around this. Cosmology and physics and everything that makes up the universe became something that I was really passionate and interested about.

Sue: [00:04:02] And when you look up at the night sky, Laurie, what is it that’s going through your mind?

Lory: [00:04:07] Wow. You know, so many things, the questions that come from that such as if the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into? One of the most fascinating moments in time for me was when the Hubble telescope focused its attention on the darkest part of the sky for a brief period of time. And what came back out of that [00:04:30] observation were just thousands of galaxies. That was a pinnacle moment for me. I printed off that picture off the internet, and I had it in front of me all the time, because it was so powerful to say, I can’t even see that. And yet it’s there. Have to say that even as recent as this month, I have invested in a new telescope. I mean, this has been a lifelong passion for me, and I’m preparing to go out into the dark skies and take some astrophotography. So it’s never left me. It’s just a passion.

Sue: [00:05:02] It’s wonderful to hear you speak with so much enthusiasm. And you’re reminding me of a previous podcast guests that we have JD Bartoe who’s an astronaut. And he talked about that emotion. He felt looking down at earth from space for the first time. And I get a sense almost you’re displaying that same sense of emotion looking up at space as him.

Lory: [00:05:22] That’s right. I love to read astronauts versions. They write books about what their experiences have been like. And I remember one particularly poignant statement from one astronaut who said that when he turned his view away from the earth into outer space, into the space, it felt so uncomfortable. And he immediately wanted to return his gaze to earth because it’s such an unknown and it’s such a darkness there’s so much out there that you don’t know. Is a very powerful emotion that it evokes when you look into outer space. And when you look out into the sky.

Sue: [00:05:54] And how did you take that interest then into making it part of your career? Was [00:06:00] that a conscious choice or did it just evolve over time?

Lory: [00:06:02] It’s interesting. It actually just evolved everything in my life, sort of meshed into one moment in time. So I was in an engineering family. I helped the family business by soldering and developing antennas and receivers, which was a part of what our family business was about. And then I went into policy research and then I went into aerospace and project management. And then I found myself in the national radio astronomy observatory, and it was like my passion around electronics and astronomy. And radios and receivers all kind of meshed together in this one opportunity. It was very powerful. I remember the day that I had just finished a backpack because I love to go out in nature. And I had taken some friends to the very large array in, in New Mexico. And I was standing in the visitor center of that huge radio astronomy observatory. And I said, why can’t I work at a place like this? Why is it that I can’t be, bring my knowledge and experience to bear? And it was within a year, I had been offered a job there and it was the perfect combination. It just led me right there.

Sue: [00:07:14] Well, it’s amazing when you perhaps put that request out into the universe and somehow it came back.

Lory: [00:07:19] That’s right. That’s right. I’ve found that having that vision of where you want to go and what you want to do and stating it out loud and just aligning yourself to move in that [00:07:30] direction. They’re very powerful. It really helps you change your life and move in a whole different direction. So across the course of my career, I have worked in at least four different industries and that intent and that desire is absolutely something that you need to put out there.

Sue: [00:07:47] So these things don’t just happen by chance, as you say, you’re setting your sights on what you hope that you will be able to accomplish in terms of your career. I also understand Lory at the beginning of your studies. That you were particularly interested in the arts and creativity, and I’m wondering how that’s played a role in your career as well.

Lory: [00:08:05] The arts are absolutely essential to me. And so when I was a child, I really love drawing. I love drawing and actually wanted to go into a field of art, but I was sort of dissuaded around that because of, well, you may not actually make a living. It may be very difficult to make a living in that field. What I did was I looked at how I could use my creativity in different fields. And one of those fields was project management, where I actually learned that you can be highly creative in a structured environment. And that was something that I had never considered before. I thought art was very unstructured and everything else was structured. Engineering, for example. But when I started to understand that you could be highly creative in a discipline, such as research or [00:09:00] science, it opened up a whole new world for me.

Sue: [00:09:03] And if you go got any examples of how you did that, how you apply that creativity in those disciplines?

Lory: [00:09:09] In project management, for example, and systems engineering, two of the fields that I’m really embedded in, and that are part of my everyday experience. I really researched very deep research about what was in those disciplines that actually make them work very well. What makes them work and what is very useful for us. And then I meshed them together in a unique way. That I called complex systems methodology, and that meshing those two together, it was obvious that those two were very complimentary, but finding a way, a creative way to think about it with very different perspective, actually allowed me to be creative in an area where it was very structured.

Sue: [00:09:53] It’s lovely to hear that for people that perhaps don’t have that view of how they can apply their strengths in other worlds and other environments that you can be creative anywhere, even within a structure.

Lory: [00:10:04] That’s right. It really opens up a whole breadth of what you can do if you’re a doctor and you feel like you have to follow the procedures in a particular way, there will be times when you need to think creatively around. How do you look at this person as a whole? And how do you. Solve this problem in a more holistic way or with some very creative combinations of activities. So you [00:10:30] can be creative in any area, in any discipline.

Sue: [00:10:34] So you were able to draw on that yourself. And I know from a firsthand experience, because of course you and I first connected when you invited me to be involved in one of your books that you were writing.

Lory: [00:10:44] That’s right.

Sue: [00:10:45] And that was me talking about an expedition, which you wouldn’t necessarily imagine would be in the text of a book about project management and systems engineering.

Lory: [00:10:53] My approach was to look at project management and systems engineering within very different experiences to try to tease out how those experiences were enabled or even made better based on the structure.

Sue: [00:11:09] So it is quite a unique thing to have within that type of textbook. If you’re enjoying this episode, you can also read the transcription over at our website, access to inspiration.org. And while you’re there, click on contact us and tell us about what you think of the podcast series and which guests you have enjoyed the most. I think that that brings us nicely onto this subject of expeditions and adventure of which you’ve also got firsthand experience. Lory, I know that you have been involved in doing the American discovery trail. I understand?

Lory: [00:11:47] That’s right. When I was working in the aerospace field, I decided that I really needed a break and I wanted to reconnect with the society and with outdoors. And I took a leave of absence for [00:12:00] eight months and I backpacked from Delaware to California across the middle of the country. And it was the most amazing experience that I have ever had, and it has really influenced how I move forward in my life.

Sue: [00:12:15] So tell us, first of all, how far is that in terms of miles?

Lory: [00:12:18] Somewhere around 3,500 miles and it took eight months, it took a solid eight months to do that.

Sue: [00:12:25] I bet your feet were sore after that.

Lory: [00:12:28] Yeah. Yes, they were indeed. Absolutely very sore. It took about. I want to say about two years for my feet to stop hurting, actually.

Sue: [00:12:37] Do you do as much walking these days?

Lory: [00:12:39] I do I still avidly hike and backpack, and I really just love going outside and being outdoors. It’s really important.

Sue: [00:12:48] So there’s this romantic notion of you backpacking across America, looking up at the stars and the galaxies above you and with those dark skies and having a whale of a time. I’m sure it wasn’t quite like that all the time. Tell us a little bit more about what the reality of that mega expedition involved.

Lory: [00:13:05] It’s really interesting that you tied it back to astronomy, because I want to tell you about my very favorite day, but I will say the reality is quite different being outdoors. And every day being exposed to the elements. I mean, you have in your mind this vision that it’s always beautiful and sunny and or clear. And in reality, it’s either raining and cold or raining and hot or sunny and hot [00:13:30] way too hot, you know, there’s a whole range. And you often don’t think about that. And you also don’t think about the dangers that you put yourself in when you’re in that situation, walking in certain areas. But my favorite night I had gotten up at 2:00 AM to walk through a part of Kansas.

And it happened to be at the same time, there was a meteor shower and it was a beautiful, clear crystal clear night. And so I was walking with a red headlamp on just to keep my night vision and there was a storm off in the distance and I could see lightning along the horizon and I looked up. And there’s this Milky way galaxy just spread across the sky with all of these asteroids, these, all of this meteor shower happening around me. And it felt like I was flying in space. It was dark in front of me. And here I was like walking through space and it was so magical. I just stopped put my backpack on the ground and sat there and just watched, watch the show till the sun started coming up. But it was so incredible. It was so amazing.

Sue: [00:14:34] Yeah. It just sounds like it must have been such a unique experience. How did that expedition that trail and that experience shape your life from then on? Because I’m imagining it probably was quite a life-changing experience.

Lory: [00:14:48] Absolutely. A life changing experience. As a matter of fact, I had been on a leave of absence and I went back and I told my boss at the time that I really probably wasn’t going to come back. I really needed to [00:15:00] do something else that I had. Really enjoy touching and experiencing the people. You know, the people made a huge, profound impact on me. There were so giving and so caring and I really wanted to do something else. And ironically, that is when I was recruited for the national radio astronomy observatory job. And when I told my current boss at that time that I was leaving for that job, he just said, well, that’s just like such a perfect job for you.

I can’t actually say anything, but keep in touch, you know, and be in touch with me. So it did profoundly impact how I wanted to approach the world and to really make a difference, making a difference. I think to most people in their daily lives is really important and powerful and something that everyone really kind of strives to make a difference in the world. And so that did really light a fire under me to live my life more purposefully that way.

Sue: [00:15:54] And how do you do that now, then Lory? How do you make a difference?

Lory: [00:15:58] I’d been with NRAO for 10 years and. I had just the benefit of being there for long enough to establish myself. And I was allowed to be very innovative on what I wanted to do. And I created a program that was called the national and international non-traditional exchange program. And it was a mentoring program meant to teach sustainable skills in electronics and engineering to individuals that were predominantly not in areas where [00:16:30] they had those opportunities.

And I would take individuals who’d never had exposure to that. And I would teach them hands-on how to build a kit to do radio astronomy and how to observe with that kit. So they were doing astronomy. I was teaching them skills that would last their lifetime. It was lovely, just a lovely program. And it’s still going on to this day. And I am still in contact with many of the people that have gone through that. I actually taught that program in many different places, including South Africa and Australia. So it talking about how to mesh project management with engineering, sustainable skills. And that mentoring program continues to go on. I have 11 active mentees right now that I am mentoring still.

Sue: [00:17:15] That’s amazing. So you really are making a difference every day.

Lory: [00:17:18] I feel like if I can lift someone else up to achieve things that they never thought possible that is the best thing in the whole world I could ever do. That is truly something that is just a very powerful thing. When I see someone achieve something based on what they’ve learned and what they’ve been able to strive for. It’s just incredible.

Sue: [00:17:41] I completely share that perspective with you, Lory. So how did you move on from there to UCAR where you are now, what’s different about your role now and how does that add to your interest in astronomy?

Lory: [00:17:53] Great. Thank you. So, when I had just returned from doing six weeks of training [00:18:00] and project management and engineering in South Africa and Japan, when I got back from that trip, I was being recruited for this position that I’m in now. And I was speaking to the CEO of the company I was at at NRAO and I said, what do you think about me taking this other opportunity?

I’m kind of ready to do the next step in my career. And I’ve always had a very respectful, open relationship with all of my previous bosses so that they always know if something’s on the horizon and they can’t get caught off guard and he was extremely supportive. And he said, this really is a really great next step for you.

What appealed to me in this position was it was about earth system science and there is one part of the organization is the Mauna Loa solar observatory. And so there was a component of astronomy. There was a component of earth system science, modeling and computing, which I really loved and field campaigns and really putting instruments out there. Instrumentation. All of these elements. I thought this is a really good fit for me for the next step in my career, because I can help advance science in very powerful ways for individual humans, where astronomy is nice from a visualization in a vision kind of perspective, you look at the sky and you wonder.

But you look at the earth and you know that you can make a difference, you know, that you have an inner power to change the earth in a positive way. And that appealed to me. So I [00:19:30] did move over to this position to do that.

Sue: [00:19:32] Many things that are happening atmospherically in the world. These days is at the forefront of many people’s minds. I guess part of what I think your role is about is about the communication of the advances that are happening and being that conduit. What do you think helps in that communication process for people to engage with the science and the research that’s being done? And for them to take on board, what actually means for them in a digestible fashion.

Lory: [00:19:58] Part of our mission, part of our mission you’re right, is communicate, educate, convey information, to ensure that the outcomes of the science are well distributed and well known in that we’re actually educating and training the next generation of scientists so that they can take on the work and do even better work, more work is so important to communicate these.

And what I’m seeing is very essential is that we connect to people in ways that it makes a difference in their lives. And so one of our mission elements is to take our research and operationalize it to make a difference in people’s lives. So one of the ways that we do that, for example, have to do around life and death from storms.

So doing the research that provides trends so that we can notify people to leave the area so they are not negatively impacted. That has a very personal connection to me because my sister lives in New Orleans and she lost [00:21:00] her home to Katrina and everything in it. And so just the thought of having enough time to have warnings so that people could take what they need and leave. And save themselves is so powerful. And that mission in itself, that is one of the things that we really strive to do is operationalize it so that individuals can really use that science themselves.

Sue: [00:21:23] And that’s like a really practical way of people. As you say, applying the science and thinking about how it makes a difference in their lives on a daily basis, potentially. So, if you were to think about meeting the leaders of the G20 nations, for example, the most powerful economies in the world, and you had a few moments to convey to them, some of the learnings and insights that you’ve gained, both thinking about astronomy and earth sciences, what would be the kind of key messages you would, you would offer to them?

Lory: [00:21:50] I think one of the most profound is that we must think of our earth as a system. And we must think of our solar system as part of that earth system. I love to watch when there’s solar activity and it translates on the earth to Aurora and you can actually see that there’s an interaction between the sun and the earth.

Everything in our, and on our earth is interconnected. The things that we do as humans and everything, the water and the ground, everything’s interconnected the air. And I think we don’t look at things in that perspective. And we must, we [00:22:30] must because when we fix certain things, it might break other things. So we have to look at it from that systems perspective.

The other thing I would love to say is we are a world of waste. We waste, we waste water. We waste, we have resources that pile up plastics, the waste that we generate, when you look at what we leave behind in space, what we leave behind on the moon, what we leave behind in our oceans, the waste is a very powerful problem that we must address.

And then I would say food and hunger. We must find a way to address this in a way that the population of this earth, they are not ever hungry. Why should they ever be hungry? And it’s a distribution problem is really truly a distribution problem. And I would love to have those three things done – just those!

Sue: [00:23:20] Well, I think you’ve really given us a sense of interdependence. Not only in what you’ve just been mentioning there about how the world is a system. And we’ve got to look at it in that way, but I get the sense of the systemic way that your world has evolved from the sky to the earth to following your passion and by giving back and helping the next generation to look at the world in a different way as well. So it has been a very connected conversation from my perspective, Lory, I’ve really enjoyed speaking to you today.

Lory: [00:23:53] Thank you.

Sue: [00:23:54] If people wanting to find out more about you and the work that you do, how might they connect with you?

Lory: [00:23:58] I think the easiest [00:24:00] way is through LinkedIn. I am very active on LinkedIn and it points to many resources that I have- websites and videos that I’ve done, that people can go and explore a little bit more.

Sue: [00:24:11] Fantastic. Well, we’ll put the links to your LinkedIn profile on the show notes, so I’m sure people will follow up with you via that route. It’s been fantastic to talk to you today, Lory, and thank you so much for your time.

Lory: [00:24:23] Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.

Sue: [00:24:26] Well, Lory’s story reminded me about how we are so interconnected with the earth and can make a positive impact on it. Next week, we look at the subject of inspiration from a composer’s perspective when it comes from and how it can be used to create music that has a positive impact on others. Join me then when I will be talking to Chris Tolley.