Our People - Paula Fisher

Taking another path

Paula Fisher says it took her only one student teaching stint to learn that secondary school teaching wasn't for her.

So the current administrator for NCAR's Advanced Study Program (ASP) took another path, learning TeX typesetting while working as a student assistant in the Aerospace Engineering Department at the University of Colorado. When Fisher spotted an NCAR job ad in 1994 for a TeX typesetter, she jumped at the opportunity.  

"My skills got me here, and I love it here," she says today.

Fisher worked for a decade in the Climate & Global Dynamics (CGD) laboratory. She since has circled back to education, serving as the ASP administrator for the past 11 years.

Unlike other NCAR programs, ASP doesn't focus on a specific area of science. Instead, its mission is to foster the development of postdoctoral fellows and other early-career scientists, many of whom are involved in emerging areas of research. The mission also includes support for graduate student thesis research and strengthening the connections between NCAR, the university community, and the broader geoscience community.

From ASP's office in the Mesa Lab, Fisher helps the postdocs get the resources they need. NCAR also hosts weekly teas for the fellows, and Fisher regularly attends the ones at ML.

When a longstanding program begun by postdocs to bring Girl Scouts to NCAR began running low on volunteers, she took on coordination with the ongoing partnership of UCAR's Center for Science Education. She is also a leader of her daughter's Brownies troop.

Fisher commutes about an hour to work from her home near Black Hawk. 

Paula Fisher, administrator of Advanced Study Program
Paula Fisher from the deck of her family's log home near Black Hawk, with Mount Evans in the distance. (Photo by Jeff Fisher.)

What inspires you?
Paula: What inspires me is the ability to facilitate the research these postdocs are doing. It's really their vision. They design their research plan, and we try to make the resources available, and provide mentoring to them.

What happens at the postdoc teas?
Paula: We just sit around and chat. A lot of discussion seems to gravitate toward them trying to find a job (laughs).

What was the most difficult resource request you've received?
Paula: A postdoc who wanted to talk to farmers on the Western Slope about water and climate change. We had to find a condo that would take her dogs.

What do you hope to achieve with your work?
Paula: I hope to free the postdocs from administrative things so they can focus more on their work. The other thing I hope to achieve is to support a lot of scientific visitors. I'm always scouring the budget for an extra $2,000 or $3,000 for another graduate student to come here. It's life changing for them.

What are you most proud of?
Paula: I would say the graduate visitor program by far. In the past, we had three to four graduate students at a time, staying three to four years. In 2006, Maura Hagan (then ASP director) and I proposed changing that to three- to 12-month visits so we could have more students. This year, we'll have 15 graduate students. We have people coming and going all the time now.

How would you describe the NCAR culture?
Paula: People are dedicated: focused, yet so normal, down to earth, supportive. It's a culture of courtesy, civility, friendliness.

What's the coolest thing about your work?
Paula: We get to meet so many interesting people. And I love to work at the Mesa. It's magical to me. I've been driving here 21 years and every day is as spectacular as the first. I never take it for granted. I love seeing the school kids coming through the lobby.

You have a long commute.
Paula: I like to listen to audio books.

What do you listen to?
Paula: I mix it up. I recently was listening to Natural Born Heroes, by Christopher McDougall, who also wrote Born to Run about the (Tarahumara Indian) barefoot long-distance runners from Mexico. I'm not a runner, but that was a fascinating book.

What do you like to do outside work?
Paula: Hiking, skiing. I have an 8-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy. This winter, my husband got us all into ice skating as a family, and I'm hoping that the four of us will be mountain biking together this summer as well.

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer