“If It’s Always Been Done A Certain Way, Question Why Even More”: 5 Leadership Lessons With Extreme Explorer Jess Phoenix
I had the distinct pleasure to interview Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist and professional field scientist, CEO of Blueprint Earth, and accomplished extreme explorer. She’s also been featured on several episodes of the upcoming season of Science Channel’s show “What On Earth.” With a President in office that denies climate change, and an influx of natural disasters, Jess is calling for the need for scientists who understand technology and how it can be used to help our country and our planet.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
I am by no means an entrepreneur by nature — in fact, I founded a one-of-a-kind environmental science research nonprofit organization out of pure necessity. As a young adult, I was convinced I would become an English professor. My disastrous time in chemistry class steered me away from hard sciences, and firmly into the humanities camp. In college, I had a bad experience with a professor that sent me tumbling from English to Latin to Government, and I finally ended up with a History degree. It was a subject I found interesting, but when asked if I was going to use my degree to teach my answer was always, without fail, NO. After graduation, I put my history degree to use working for the State of Arizona for a few years. Still, the reality of working indoors behind a desk every day didn’t satisfy my lifelong curiosity about the world around us. I had taken geology courses in college and loved every minute, but I didn’t want to go back to school after several years and complete another four-year degree to study Geology. After an extensive search, I found the website for California State University, Los Angeles. It was there that I saw a Master’s makeup program — the chance to earn an M.S. in Geology while making up the courses in Physics and foundational Geology that I was missing. I applied and was overjoyed to gain admission. The program was challenging, and at one point I was taking five courses while teaching two and acting as a teaching assistant for another to pay my bills. Years later, my experience working in geology around the world showed me how scientists were working in silos, with communication between different fields often nonexistent. On a research cruise to study an undersea volcano, I was with a team of microbiologists. I asked one to identify a deep-sea fish, and he told me that he didn’t study anything other than microbes. That response is what showed me I could use the strong communication skills I gained as a Humanities major to connect different fields of science — and through that, solve big picture problems like environmental destruction and climate change! Marrying the Sciences and the Humanities proves that with all hands on deck, we can meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
The second year of operations for Blueprint Earth was when we really hit our stride. We had college students coming to participate in our research from around the country. We work outdoors, in a remote location in California’s harsh Mojave Desert, in an area within the Mojave National Preserve. Where we camp is only about half an hour from a small desert town filled with gas stations and drive-thru fast food restaurants. About halfway into a week-long expedition, we took our group of twelve into town to get fuel, ice, and frozen yogurt after a hot day working in the field. Our group sat around tables inside the convenience store, eating yogurt and talking. Suddenly, a dark shape swooped by some of our researchers’ heads. Startled, we all tried to follow its erratic path. The creature dove sideways, circled the stand of Twinkies, and then flitted up into the thirty-foot high atrium at the convenience store’s entrance. Our biologists exclaimed that it was a bat, and we jumped to our feet. I told the group to keep an eye on the bat, and then told the convenience store employees that we could help. I called one of the students to help me retrieve something from the truck and we headed outside. He asked me what we were doing, and I told him that we had a bat net. He appeared simultaneously surprised, and unsurprised. He responded that yes, of COURSE we would have a bat net. At Blueprint Earth, we’re prepared for anything and everything!
Once we retrieved the net, we gathered our group beneath the terrified bat, who was hanging high up in the atrium. My husband and co-founder, Carlos, had downloaded an app that played bat calls. The rest of us took the 30-foot-long, 8-foot-wide net and spread out, holding it as high above our heads as we could. Customers entering the building stared, and some stopped and offered to help. We circled the space, net held aloft, bat sounds chirping through the whole convenience store.
After about an hour trying to convince the bat to come down, we had to give up. We needed to get back to camp before dark, since we had to be up early in the morning to release small mammals from the traps we’d set that afternoon. The store employees thanked us, and we advised them to leave the automatic doors open as dusk fell in the hopes that the bat would leave on its own once it became dark.
For six months, we wondered what became of the bat. The next time we visited the convenience store, the clerks remembered us. Apparently, our bat net and bat call app had become a minor legend in the town, and every expedition since we’ve checked in with the store to make sure they’re still bat-free.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Blueprint Earth is truly unique among scientific research organizations. We are creating blueprints of Earth’s environments, one at a time, and we’re including everything from microbes to clouds. We’re focused on helping environmental restoration efforts, and someday creating livable environments on the Moon or other planets. Our vision is that the organization will outlast our lifetimes, and our techniques will be used around the world to preserve our planet and further our understanding of it. What makes us different is that we give students who are typically under-represented in field sciences like geology, biology, hydrology, and atmospheric science the change to participate at no cost. Our student researchers have been 76% female, 54% nonwhite, and 60% come from low-income households. We believe that opening doors for students of all backgrounds is the future of science. One of my favorite stories is about one of our student researchers, Desiree. She was a biology student at California State University, Los Angeles, and she was studying to be a nurse because she thought that was her only option. After joining us on our first field expedition, she came back again and again. She fell in love with the desert, and with field biology. After she graduated, I was happy to recommend her for a position as a Wildlife Biologist at the Grand Canyon, where she works now. All it takes to change the world is opening doors, and that’s where Blueprint Earth excels.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I am extremely grateful to my Master’s degree adviser, Dr. Kim Bishop. He admitted me to the graduate program and gave me the opportunity to teach. He provided me with recommendations to work at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and for a PhD program and real-world jobs. When I wanted to found Blueprint Earth, he listened to my idea and talked it through with me. He’s even joined us in the field to help us figure out complex geology issues. He has treated me like a colleague since the day we first met in 2007, and without his support I know I wouldn’t be the scientist and leader I am today. I always strive to model the kindness and intelligent leadership I saw him show students every day.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My goal as a scientist has been not just to do research, but to make sure the importance of science in our daily lives reaches as many people as possible. To this end, I’ve started working with the Discovery Channel and Science Channel to make shows that use real science. I want to reach people who wouldn’t normally interact with scientists, and I want to show them that we’re working every day to help make the world better. I carry the knowledge that we are all born as scientists — exploring, testing, discovering — when I visit elementary school classrooms with Blueprint Earth. Every kid I meet is a scientist, and I want to show them that the world is waiting for them to discover its mysteries.
What are your “5 things you wish someone told you before you started,” and why?
- Stay confident in your vision always. There’s a reason you started this. When Blueprint Earth was in its early days, it was tempting to follow others in the environmental science field. My husband Carlos and I were there to remind each other of how our idea was different, and a game-changer (and more importantly, necessary).
- Fancy titles and lots of money don’t equal merit. Talking with people with PhDs or wealth showed me that having vision doesn’t cost anything. Often, the people who could see the concept of Blueprint Earth most clearly were the people who had spent time working in the trenches of field science, rather than specializing in one area to the exclusion of all others.
- It’s easy to criticize others, and tough to do the work. So many people early on tried to tell me why Blueprint Earth couldn’t work. For example, a geologist would say the geology aspect of our work would be easy but would question how we could accomplish the biological component. A biologist would agree that the biology work could be done but would wonder how we could deal with massive amounts of data. A data scientist would say our data issues were totally manageable, but wondered how we would cover the geology, and so on. In the end, we just went out and did the work and let that speak for itself.
- If it’s always been done a certain way, question why even more. We often heard people insist that no one had done what we were doing, but they couldn’t tell us why. I quickly realized that it’s because sometimes big-picture ideas seem overwhelming, but if you break it down into small pieces any goal is possible.
- Everyone has something to teach you. Always be learning. Being humble is a great lesson, and one that we always strive to achieve at Blueprint Earth. I have learned so much by looking at our work through the eyes of student researchers who are doing field work for the first time. Everyone carries preconceptions with them, so it’s important to look at things through fresh perspectives to make sure you’re not missing the forest for the trees!
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Elon Musk. I think his habit of challenging accepted wisdom about the limits of what’s possible resonates with mine. Without true optimism, great advancements don’t happen. I’d like to talk about the future and how we can create the world we want by harnessing the brain power and technological potential of our planet and people.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Originally published at www.buzzfeed.com.