Q & A with Alumnus Ian Zelo

Alumnus Ian Zelo graduated from the School of Marine Affairs in 2000. He began working for NOAA’s National Ocean Service Office of Response and Restoration in 2002, and now serves as Chief of Staff. We had a chance to catch up with Ian and hear about what he enjoys most about his career, learn what traits have best served him, and ask what advice he has for current SMEA students.

Can you give us a brief description of what you do?

As Chief of Staff in NOAA’s National Ocean Service Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), I am a member of the Senior Management Team. I lead the Communications and Outreach Team for the Office, and in that role lead the response to all agency and congressional requests of our office. I also lead OR&R’s participation in Ocean Service level planning and risk management. I coordinate and facilitate Office level planning, and manage Environmental Compliance and Safety for the Office.

What do you like best about your job?

I began working for the Office of Response and Restoration in 2002. Since then, I have contributed in many capacities across two of our five divisions. As Chief of Staff I am one of a small team of people that focus on issues that are cross cutting and affect all of the work in the Office. I also work with Ocean Service leadership and with teams of people from all the Offices in the Ocean Service. It is the breadth of the work and the opportunity to connect people and ideas across our many facets and missions that I enjoy.

How did SMEA help you prepare?

During my time at SMEA, I was determined to make my degree as broad as possible. Of course, I did all the core work, but I also took classes in Public Affairs, the College of Forestry, and the Business School. Additionally, I was able to work for the Washington State Department of Ecology for the summer between my two years, and, with the help of Marc Hershman, secured a 6-month internship position with the Port of Anacortes. As my career has unfolded, it’s not so much my SMEA coursework but the general approach of diversity, flexibility and learning things beyond my zone of familiarity and comfort that has really carried me forward.

If you had one piece of advice for current SMEA students, what would it be?

I would make two observations. First, you can’t possibly know where you’ll end up. My experience has been that experiences will come to you all the time and from places that you may never expect. By staying alert and remaining open to new experiences and to learning new things, your path forward may become much more uncertain and filled with more possibilities and destinations than you originally thought. Second, there are SMEA alumni all over the place, and you should look them up. While I am personally terrible at reaching out for myself, I am always pleased to meet a new SMEA grad and enjoy engaging with them and helping them where I can. The alumni that I know would say the same.

What one trait has served you well in your career so far?

Again, I’d have to pick two. Honesty first. People are often reluctant to say what’s on their mind, to question the status quo or the direction of the larger group. I have had great success speaking up, tactfully. I am an intense introvert and it took me a long time to get comfortable enough to do it. The effort was worthwhile – it’s a skill that’s in short supply. Action second. Working in a science agency, I am part of a culture of inquiry and study, and I really appreciate the quest for understanding. There is a point where we need to take the next step, however. Make the decision and get the work done with the information we have. Another skill set that is always in demand.