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NOAA Corps Officer Profile: Commander Fionna Matheson

A female NOAA Corps officer in a stairwell aboard a ship

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps) is one of the nation’s eight uniformed services and NOAA Corps officers are an integral part of NOAA. With approximately 330 officers and growing, the NOAA Corps supports nearly all of NOAA’s programs and missions. The combination of commissioned service and scientific expertise makes these officers uniquely capable of leading some of NOAA’s most important initiatives. Meet NOAA Corps officer Fionna Matheson.

Where did you grow up?

I spent my early years in Massachusetts and the rest of my childhood on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Where did you go to school and in what subject did you get your degree(s)?

I graduated from Sweet Briar College in Virginia with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. A few years later, I learned about the NOAA Corps and applied. During my NOAA Corps career, I earned a Master of Arts in Producing Film, Television and Video from American University in Washington, D.C. 

What inspired you to become a NOAA Corps officer?

My family has gone to sea for generations, and there’s a strong tradition of service as well. Many of my relatives served in the military or the U.S. Merchant Marine. 

I imagined a career that would allow me to indulge my curiosity about the natural world and spend a significant amount of time on or under the water. I took advantage of some great opportunities during college, including a summer sailing the North Atlantic with Sea Education Association and an internship at New England Aquarium. Though I wanted very much to dive right into a marine science career, I didn’t have the luxury of doing unpaid or underpaid work to build my resume, which is so often the entry level model in the biological sciences. I had gone to an excellent college thanks to incredibly generous scholarships, grants and student loans. But once I graduated, I had to make enough to support myself. So I pursued other things that ended up being really valuable experiences, but were very different from the career path I had imagined. 

I was about four years down that road when I learned about and joined the NOAA Corps. I like to say now that I’m science-adjacent, providing a platform for science at sea, but I have been immersed on the science side as well, especially early in my NOAA Corps career, and that gave me some of my absolute best memories. I probably wouldn’t have made a long career solely as a field researcher. I know so many talented, brilliant people who are better at it than I ever was, and it requires such stamina and patience. I like being a generalist. I’m impatient and curious, so getting to change roles every few years has certainly kept me from getting bored. This career path never lets us get too comfortable, and at least for a couple of decades, that can be really appealing. As a former boss of mine likes to say, there is a sweet spot for learning and growth - when you’re just uncomfortable enough, that’s when you grow the most. 

What do you do as a NOAA Corps officer?

As the commanding officer of NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette, I manage a ship that primarily does fisheries oceanography work, which includes a lot of plankton and neuston sampling and some small boat and dive operations. A lot of things have to go right for us to even leave the dock, so most days involve a lot of communication with my crew, the science teams we support, my boss at the Marine Operations Center, and the many teams on shore who get us the people, parts, and specialized contract labor that we need. At sea, I spend a good part of each day on desk work. The higher your rank, the more of that there is, but I also spend time on the bridge training and supervising officers in shiphandling, and on deck observing operations. 

What was one of your favorite missions or experiences?

I’ve been fortunate to work in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument on a number of missions. The first time I got to see the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, we tagged tiger sharks from a small boat to study their movement patterns, dove among pristine coral reefs, and found the wreck of the whaling ship Two Brothers. That mission stands out because of the interesting mix of teams collaborating to make the most of their time at sea - marine archaeologists, shark ecologists, NOAA Corps officers, professional mariners - and because we had the rare chance to gain firsthand knowledge of one of the most extraordinary places on Earth. If I could have sprouted gills and stayed underwater there, I would have done it. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a NOAA Corps officer?

Apply! Talk to active officers at all ranks to be sure you know what you’re getting into. Some workplace challenges are universal. Others are quite specific to this vocation, so it’s important to decide whether you’re willing to take those on. This career can give you some truly extraordinary experiences. It can also involve plenty of what we call “type II fun,” which is harrowing while you’re living it but makes a great story later. It is not an easy path, but it can be a rewarding one. If you love going to sea and you’re invested in the NOAA mission, it’s definitely worth checking out. 

What does Women’s History Month mean to you?

Women’s capabilities, experiences, and impact should be honored and appreciated every single day. That should be normal. This month is a reminder to seek out not only the familiar stories of exceptional women, but also women’s stories in general. So often throughout history, women’s work, wisdom and contributions have been either dismissed or credited to men, as happened with Marie Tharp (ocean mapping, tectonic plate theory) and Rosalind Franklin (discovery of DNA’s double helix structure). The women we hear about every March, like Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Sacajawea, and Joan of Arc, were exceptional and had to overcome extraordinary odds to make their mark. As awe-inspiring as their stories are, they also carry the unspoken message that you have to be extraordinary to be a woman worth mentioning. It’s just as important to witness the lives and stories of fairly ordinary women. We don’t have to be standouts to be worthwhile. 

The more we hear a variety of women’s stories - not just those of martyrs and geniuses - the richer our understanding of the human experience, and the wiser we can be in making decisions that affect our society. The freedom that we’re used to, especially if we’re Gen X or younger, is not guaranteed. It was hard won pretty recently and needs to be actively maintained. I’m the commanding officer of a federal research ship, and in the NOAA fleet, thankfully, I’m not an exception. Five of our 15 ships are currently led by women. Yet my grandmother was born into a U.S. where women could not vote. Women in my mom’s generation couldn’t get a bank account or credit card without a husband’s approval, job options (never mind careers) were severely limited for women, and my mother was paid far less than her male colleagues for the same work. That was “normal” when I was growing up. Title IX passed a few years before I was born. Two decades later I got to play Division III college soccer, which I loved. I’m still good friends with some of my old teammates.

My best contributions and most interesting adventures were only possible because millions of women before me fought for equal rights and freedoms, often at great personal sacrifice, and delivered them to my generation. I want the little kids in my life to inherit a world that has a few of the big problems we face today solved, and is brimming with opportunity for them to apply their intellects, manual skills, artistic ideas, grit and determination, whatever it is they bring - without ever having to worry that they don’t belong in that field or that hobby because of their gender. There’s no shortage of work to be done in this world, so why not make sure the talent pool is as big as possible? 

What do you like to do outside of work?

When I’m not working, I like to SCUBA dive, kayak, garden, take photos, learn new things about the natural world, listen to music and sing along with gusto.