Jennifer Steger, M.A.
Jennifer Steger (Young) ’88 has spent a lot of time on rough seas. For several years she was a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Corps officer, responsible for the safe operation and navigation aboard ship, averaging 250 days a year at sea. During her time with the Corps, she sailed on three different vessels from Alaska to Antarctica before eventually taking a land assignment in Seattle, WA.
“I am grateful that I was young and naive,” said Steger. “I didn’t realize how dangerous it was in the Bering Sea off the coast of Russia, I just loved it. When you see the movie The Perfect Storm–that stuff really happens. People are out doing research in that kind of environment.”
Steger is a manager of the Northwest and Alaska Regions, NOAA Fisheries Restoration Center where her responsibilities are almost as vast as the landscape. As part of a national program that conducts habitat restoration, Steger’s duties include collaboration with other federal, state, tribal and local governments, and grass-roots organizations, facilitating NOAA’s role as a leader in natural resource management.
“I love solving problems,” said Steger. “It’s always a negotiation. Never a day goes by that I’m not finding a different way to get things done.”
Ironically, what Steger loves about the work is also its greatest challenge. “It’s constant problem solving. Budgets are always a challenge, there are challenging individuals, and I believe there is still a fairly significant ‘old-boy network’ even today. I’m still a woman in the science world encountering some of those issues.”
But Steger was destined to become a woman in science, though what path she would pursue was not initially clear. “I originally wanted to be doctor,” she said, “but it just wasn’t a good fit.”
Steger dabbled with the idea of majoring in art, but decided on biology and chemistry with an art minor. “I chose biology and chemistry because it seemed to be the hardest thing I could pick, I needed a challenge, and I was looking for direction.
“Going to IU was the best decision I ever made,” Steger said. “I had a lot of fun in high school, but I wasn’t really a joiner. At Immaculata, we were involved in everything. You didn’t have to worry about where you wanted to go or what you wanted to do. You discovered things you liked and gravitated towards, and the opportunities just started to present themselves.”
In her senior year at IU, when Steger was looking at doctoral programs in molecular biology, a discussion with Dr. Frank Martin changed her course. “He told me he thought I would be happier if I could find a job as a naturalist and make a living doing that kind of work.”
The summer after she graduated, Steger worked with a chemical manufacturer and got involved in the “detective work” of government. “I ran into a great mentor again, and she guided me through.”
At the University of Connecticut, Steger earned a master’s degree in geography and environmental sciences with a minor in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) applications. It was there that she worked as a research assistant for marine sciences expert Dr. Donald Squires and was introduced to environmental forensics, observing and tracking changes in the natural environment. As Steger put it, “That kind of thing really took root in me.”
After another brief stint with the chemical manufacturer, followed by more work as an environmental scientist conducting environmental assessments, Steger was ready for something more.
“One day my mom told me I needed to be in Puget Sound,” said Steger. “She handed me Peterson’s Guide to Employment and in there was information on the NOAA Corps. Within the next year or so, I was signed up to go on ships. Different opportunities came up and kind of floated my boat, no pun intended.”
Once her adventures at sea were behind her and she was back on land as a NOAA federal employee, Steger decided she wanted to take to the skies. “I wanted to learn how to fly a plane, and my instructor is now my husband.”
Steger never did the one cross-country flight required for a pilot’s license, but she and her husband, who works for Boeing on the Dreamliner, now have two sons, Jonathan, 10, and Christopher, 5. “I go to a lot of baseball, basketball and soccer games,” said Steger, who also loves traveling with the family to Alaska and Hawaii. “My ultimate dream, though,” she admits, “is to write and illustrate a children’s book. I still dabble in artsy stuff.”
As an environmental scientist with a distinctly visual perspective, one of Steger’s greatest joys is being able to show her boys the results of her work. “We do projects that are on the ground,” she said. “I can walk around anywhere there’s water and stand on something I was responsible for. I really enjoy preserving the environment and educating the public.
“So much in this field ends up on paper,” she added, “but the end result of what I do I can reach out and touch. That means a lot to me. Even if the projects don’t last in perpetuity, they will be lasting my lifetime.”