Bob Andres—lessons from an unplanned career

Jul 21, 2016

Bob Andres hiking along the coast of Iceland, with the North Atlantic in the background, June 2016.

Bob Andres of the ORNL Climate Change Science Institute (CCSI) and Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) has been a volcanologist, a geochemical consultant, a university professor, a laboratory manager, a remote sensing expert, and an instrument developer over the course of a 24-year career that has spanned numerous organizations, including two national laboratories, and taken him all over the world. In early July, he will assume a new role: former ORNL employee. Before leaving, he stopped by CCSI to share some lessons from his “unplanned” life.

“My career, or rather its trajectory, was certainly not planned,” Andres says. “It was all the result of personal preference (my wife, Tina, and I share a certain wanderlust), circumstance (being part of a two-career family), and serendipity.” He and his wife both have PhDs, and over the course of their careers they have seesawed in terms of which career took precedence or determined where they would go next—surely a good, not to mention fair, game plan for a two-career couple.

“Unplanning” or serendipity started early in Andres’s career, when he let a postcard from an unknown—to him—university in New Mexico (the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology [NMIMT]) determine his choice of undergraduate institution. (It turns out NMIMT is highly ranked among regional universities and colleges.) While at NMIMT, Andres worked for the New Mexico Bureau of Mines, which not only confirmed his career choice for him, but also led to other opportunities later on. Oh, and by happenstance Andres also met his wife while at NMIMT.

Following graduate school (for both at Michigan Technological University), his wife found a position first, working at Tennessee Technological University (TTU) in Cookeville, Tennessee. Through a fortunate series of events, Andres located two postdoctoral positions, one in volcanology at TTU and one at CDIAC, working on anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Volcanoes and anthropogenic CO2 emissions might seem like an odd combination to some, but Andres says there are similarities in the processes involved in both: the techniques for estimating emissions are the same; the transport processes involved are the same; and the chemistry is the same, just applied to different parts of the periodic table. Both subjects have played a central role in his career over the last two decades.

The next stop for the Andres family was Fairbanks, Alaska, for 7 years (for his wife’s career), followed by stints at the University of North Dakota (his career); NMIMT, his old alma mater; and Los Alamos National Laboratory (his wife’s career) before Andres came full circle by “returning” to ORNL to work once again at CDIAC.

When Andres got the itch to return to CDIAC, he contacted Tom Boden, CDIAC director, with whom he has collaborated over the years. The only catch was he didn’t want to move back to Oak Ridge. His children were in school, and his wife’s career was going well (she had moved into a mid-/senior-level management position). Fortuitously (or is that serendipitously?), he was able to negotiate a telecommuting arrangement. Andres says that the success of such arrangements is predicated on the type of work you do and the environment. It also helps when you already have a relationship such as the one he developed while working with Boden and other CDIAC staff during his postdoc and in subsequent years.

Andres says he never would have mapped this career course, but “it’s been intellectually challenging and fun for the last 20+ years, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Life lessons

Among the things his career has taught him are the importance of being open to possibilities, serendipity, and the unexpected—uncertainty with a capital U—and the importance of building a foundation of good, solid scientific work.

“If you do good science, opportunities will open up; you just have to be willing to accept them. They may not always be exactly what you were planning, but each new opportunity has the potential for joy. And the unexpected can be exciting.”

Bob Andres hiking Grimsey Island, on the Arctic Circle 40 km off the northern coast of Iceland, June 2016. The body of water is the Greenland Sea.

Integrity in one’s work is essential, he says. “The opportunities open to any scientist are based on past work, and if that work isn’t solid, it will eventually close the door to future opportunities.” And of course, good, solid work will open the door to all kinds of possibilities, including telecommuting.

While science is important to Andres—“pushing back the ignorance” as he likes to call it—people and interpersonal relations, he says, are what have really made his career.

Andres is enthusiastic about ORNL and encourages younger staff members to value their time here.

“It’s a great concentration of resources, both human and capital, and a really rich work environment that you won’t find anywhere else. You might find ‘pieces’ at other places, but ORNL is the complete package in terms of great colleagues, good resources, and interesting problems to work on. This makes it an especially good place for people starting their careers, offering many opportunities to establish your identity and build the confidence to be successful anywhere.”

So where to from here?

Andres is always looking for new challenges (and of course, there is that wanderlust). He’s been back at ORNL, metaphorically speaking, for 10 years now and says that intellectually he is feeling the “itch” to do something else. That’s why 6 months ago he told Boden that he thought it was time to move on. When asked his plans, he says he sees three possible options for the future: (1) continue doing the same work, only somewhere else (and yes, he has had offers); (2) switch scientific fields again and do something completely new; or (3) join his wife, who retired 2 years ago, in retirement. But for the time being, he says he will probably take 6 months “off” and then make a decision.

While he’s deciding, he’s worked in a trip to Iceland. As a volcanologist, he always figured his work would take him there, but it never did. Now he’s making it happen. Some things you just can’t leave to serendipity.

By VJ Ewing