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Employee Spotlight: Dr. Valerie Mikles

June 13, 2024
A headshot of Dr. Valerie Mikles

For Pride Month, we celebrate the diverse experiences and achievements within the LGBTQ+ community. This year, we are spotlighting the contributions of LGBTQ+ individuals at NOAA.

We spoke with Valerie Mikles, PhD, a Physical Scientist who is a part of NOAA's Office of Low Earth Orbit Observations (LEO) Program Systems Engineering Team. Identifying as agender and asexual, Valerie shares with us the significance of Pride Month in her life and explores her contributions to satellite operations and data analysis. 

(Valerie's pronouns and salutations: She, her, people, folks, Dr., Mx.)

Can you describe your current role at LEO/JPSS and outline your key responsibilities?

I am a NOAA Physical Scientist, and part of the LEO Program System Engineering Team. I joined NOAA in 2012, working with the Center for Satellite Applications and Research (STAR) Algorithm Integration Team for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) mission. I moved to the JPSS Program Systems Engineering group in 2019, which later became LEO Program Systems Engineering as the future Near-Earth Orbit Network (NEON) program took shape. I use my knowledge of data products and science needs to help plan the next generation of weather satellites launching into low-Earth orbit. I help compose requirements which are important because they define the trade space of a mission and the key criteria for success. My work helps us make sure we build what scientists need to make weather and environmental forecasts.

hat do you find most rewarding about working at LEO/JPSS?

I love working closely with so many smart people who each bring their own history and expertise to projects. And I like that my intelligence and expertise is trusted and relied upon. When two people disagree, it’s often not because one is wrong. It’s because the problem is complex and there are multiple ways to approach it. My work requires a lot of individual expertise, but also a lot of team work to figure out a path forward.

What do you appreciate about the culture of inclusivity and diversity at LEO/JPSS, and how do you see yourself as a part of it?

I found my first support groups outside of work. There are a lot of things that land someone in a diversity category, and the LGBTQ+ forms are not always visible or relevant to your work life. At LEO, I’ve never felt that I couldn’t exist at work as myself, and I appreciate that, especially since my understanding of myself is evolving as I find it safer to question the categories I was assigned early in life. I am happy to share my assorted queer labels with folks who are genuinely interested. I’ve created books, songs, and short films about it.

I’ve recently joined the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) teams for NOAA and NASA so that I can get a better understanding of what we are doing and what we can do better. I feel like LEO embraces the Maya Angelou quote “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Who has significantly inspired your career, and how have they influenced your professional journey?

I can’t point to a single inspirational person because I haven’t had a single career. I started in astronomy, then I was a screenwriter and a dance teacher, now I work on weather satellites and write novels. I’ve always been driven to do whatever I want, and I never want what I do today to limit what I can learn tomorrow. I’ve been inspired by many people in my life. I’ve had many great and supportive bosses, amazing teachers, and uplifting colleagues. I enjoy being surrounded by so many amazing people, and I think they all have a little something to teach me and experience to share.

Can you discuss a project or initiative at LEO/JPSS that you are particularly proud of?

Every year, LEO does a JPSS-focused ‘Sunday Experiment’ with the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) Visitors Center. I’ve been a part of this the past two years, and I absolutely love it. It gives me a chance to show my friends and family what I do in a very accessible way. I love showing off JPSS to the world, teaching people that weather forecasts don’t come from nothing. I am so incredibly proud to be a part of this massive global community, making sure the air is clean, protecting the environment, and keeping us safe from disaster. LEO is one small part in this amazing mission and that is why I love what I do. I tend to close my public talks with “We’re just trying to save the world.”

In what ways have your personal experiences or perspectives enriched your approach to your work at LEO/JPSS?

My brain works best when I have a lot of information. I want the big picture. I parse and sift that information very well, and when it filters down, I can make much better decisions about my little piece of the puzzle. I have two great nemeses. The first is ‘need to know,’ although I can’t fault the reasoning behind it. The second is when the higher ups just don’t know yet. But I think being that big picture person with a broad range of curiosities and a fairly good memory has helped me contribute positively to my teams. I’m very fortunate to work with people whose brains are more detail-focused than mine.

I’ve talked to young people who have amazing skills and I think they’d fit in great on a NOAA/NASA project, and they respond with “But I’m bad at engineering.” I want all those people to know, you might be bad at math or writing or test-taking, but launching a mission into space requires all kinds of people with all kinds of brains. That’s part of why diversity in the workforce makes us stronger.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in your field, especially those from the LGBTQ+ community?

Wherever you are, learn how to do that job as best you can. Don’t be afraid of learning new things. Listen to the stories of the folks who have been in the programs for decades. Ask questions. Institutional knowledge is a real and valuable resource. Don’t be afraid to job hop. As a contractor, you kind of have to hop contracts to gain more skills. As a civil servant, take advantage of details where you can. On the other hand, if you find your niche early on, don’t be afraid to stay and keep being awesome at that. The mission needs all kinds of people.

For the LGBTQ+ folks, you are not required to be out and proud at work. You don’t need to stand in the spotlight and be the spokesperson for your labels. It’s okay to decline the demographics surveys. Your identity is still valid even if you never go to a single LGBTQ+ event. On the other hand, if you want to join the Employee Resource Groups (there are both NOAA and NASA ones), you might find a safe and affirming community that helps you grow and gives you the confidence to exist as yourself at work. There is no one-sized-fits-all answer. Do what’s best for you and what makes you feel safe.

Could you share a fun fact about yourself that your colleagues might not know?

I’m an expert dabbler. I think people are surprised by how many hobbies I pursue outside of work. I’ve published 20 novels, I have one YouTube channel with short films I’ve written and produced about being queer and another one with music videos of me playing ukulele and piano. I’ve been dancing since childhood and now I volunteer at community theaters doing choreography, acting, stage managing, and more. This year, I started learning to read Dutch, German, and Spanish. I’m very mediocre at a lot of things, but I’m better for doing them.