Libby Jewett ’78

Libby Jewett
As a program director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for more than 12 years and the first female to occupy a leadership position in her division, Libby Jewett ’78 has made it clear: She’s committed to moving the needle on climate change. Libby is the founder of

Libby is the founder of NOAA’S Ocean Acidification Program and the 2021 recipient of the Integrated Ocean Observing System’s CARAID award, which recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to observing and understanding our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. She has made a career of protecting and restoring the health of marine ecosystems – a cause to which she remains committed.

Last June, Libby accepted a new position, becoming research program manager for the Offshore Wind Team at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Rhode Island. The job offered the opportunity to help develop viable solutions to the pressing concerns she has spent nearly two decades of her professional life identifying.
It’s a big lift, but as always, Libby is game. She says, “Climate change is the most serious challenge of our time, and my primary focus is how I can help to address the issue. The climate is changing in ways that are not good for ecosystems and people. We’ve got to move fast, and we must focus on solutions.” Discovering Her Path
Libby Jewett
Libby has long been passionate about protecting the natural world, a calling she traces back to her student days at Potomac. “We had really great outdoor education; I still remember excursions on the nature trails,” she says with a smile. “In retrospect, I think those experiences planted the seeds of my career.”
She admits, however, that professional currents carried her to a variety of positions before bringing the opportunity to become a change agent at NOAA. Libby recounts, “I took AP science classes in high school and enjoyed them very much, then went to college and got excited about other things.” After completing a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies at Yale, she went on to earn a master’s in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School. “I was always focused on human services and ways to make things better,” she reflects.
After completing her master’s, working for several years in Boston, and having two children, Libby moved to Buffalo for her husband’s job and found herself fundraising for an environmental group focused on conservation initiatives for the Great Lakes. She says, “I was surrounded by people doing important conservation work, but I didn’t feel I had the educational background to engage fully with their mission.”
A field trip with her kindergarten-age son offered fresh perspective: “We were doing a little experiment in a stream, and I suddenly realized, ‘I love working in nature and educating people about the natural world. This is what I want to do.’”
Despite possessing none of the prerequisites for doctoral study in the sciences, Libby decided to follow her heart. She and her husband moved to the DC area, where she enrolled in a graduate program in marine science at the University of Maryland, earning her Ph.D. in 2005. She says, “It was never clear to me if I could juggle raising small children and pursuing a degree that would involve extensive fieldwork, but I jumped in – a decision made easier by knowing that my husband supported my crazy plan.”
Soon after completing her doctoral studies, Libby landed a position at NOAA. “It’s a very important agency for anyone doing marine science,” she observes. And the new job turned out to be just the kind of opportunity she relishes. Libby says, “I love science, and having the opportunity to apply it in a policy setting is ideal for me.”

Defining the Challenge

Libby’s initial years at NOAA were spent in the National Ocean Service division, enabling research of low oxygen, or hypoxia, issues in coastal waters around the U.S. She soon recognized that ocean acidification (OA) was an area of growing concern. She recalls, “Acidification was just getting noticed. We realized that the oceans’ chemistry was changing due to rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, so I helped spearhead a group to figure out how to address the issue. In 2010, I convened a team from across NOAA to write the agency’s first research plan on the topic. I was subsequently offered the opportunity to build NOAA's Ocean Acidification Program as its first director.”
Libby and her team quickly embarked on a three-part mission – to study how the oceans’ chemistry was changing, determine what marine life and human life were vulnerable to harm, and formulate strategies to adapt. Thirteen years later, the program is flourishing, with a budget of approximately $17 million, a dedicated staff of 15, and hundreds of scientists around the nation whose work it helps to fund. This past September, the Department of Commerce and NOAA announced that they would dedicate $24 million for projects designed to address the climate crisis by researching marine carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies, a move spearheaded by Libby and made possible under President Biden’s Investing in America agenda.
Libby is delighted by such commitment and hopeful that the funds will enable researchers to understand the pros and cons of marine CDR and give them opportunities to weigh in on the regulatory processes that must be developed to ensure that the mitigation is done in a way that protects our oceans.
With this milestone reached, Libby felt that the time had come to turn over the reins of the Ocean Acidification Program and direct her attention toward new challenges. Her recent job transition involved switching divisions within NOAA, moving from Research to Fisheries, and she is now helping to build a new research effort focused on offshore wind.
“We’ve identified the issues, now we need to strategize solutions,” she explains. “I hired a competent team of leaders in the OA program and have every confidence that they will continue to shepherd it effectively. Meanwhile, I’ve done climate assessments and have a broader understanding of the impacts of climate change beyond acidification, so I want to use that knowledge to make a difference.”
Libby and her husband are relocating to New England to be nearer to her work off the northern seaboard, and she has begun to think about next steps. “I’ve just turned 60, and I want to dedicate the remaining years of my career to changing the trajectory we’re on with respect to climate change,” she asserts.

Focusing on Solutions

Libby Quote
From her new office in Rhode Island, Libby explains that the Northeast is a natural place to focus on strategies for addressing the carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change: “The first wind turbines placed in U.S. waters are in the Northeast, and there are many active, centuries-old fisheries here. Our team is developing a program to identify the research NOAA should pursue to assess the impact of wind turbines on marine ecosystems and fishing in those ecosystems.”
But arresting climate change goes beyond the rapid development of renewable energy. Libby notes that effecting meaningful change will require a two-part approach. She says, “Offshore wind is an important renewable energy solution for limiting the production of carbon dioxide, but we also need to formulate strategies for removing existing CO2 from the atmosphere if we want to limit rising global temperatures.”
So Libby’s work includes advising on marine carbon dioxide removal. She says, “We need to determine what research questions to ask, explore how marine CDR might impact ecosystems, and consider our potential role in permitting these initiatives.”
Asked what marine CDR might entail, Libby quickly ticks off two examples. “One idea is to use plants like sea kelp to capture CO2 and push it into deep water,” she says. “The kelp would be grown in a controlled way in surface waters, then when the plants reached a certain size, they would be sunk into the deep ocean, where they would degrade and be taken up by sediments, trapping the CO2.” Another idea is to run seawater through equipment that uses chemicals and membranes to remove carbon dioxide, then return the water to the ocean. “This process is called direct ocean capture,” Libby notes. “Questions remain as to what we do with the CO2 once it has been pulled from the sea water, so clearly there is work still to be done.”

Leveraging Innovation, Embracing Optimism

Libby’s enthusiasm for tackling the big challenges of climate change is palpable, and her entrepreneurial approach to developing solutions is compelling. “I’m always trying to think outside the box,” she admits. “Before I created the Ocean Acidification Program, I was thinking about what was needed; then when I got the green light to move forward, I realized that there was no agency playbook. So I had to figure things out for myself. As I formulated the plan, I talked to agency colleagues, expanded on concepts used in other programs, and explored ways to better collaborate with private industry and universities.”
The work was time consuming, but Libby discovered that she had a knack for getting things done despite the challenges of bureaucracy. “I found it incredibly exciting to innovate within the confines of government – I just determined what needed to be done and found ways to do it,” she says.
Libby Jewett
Libby’s enthusiasm also extends to increasing the representation of women in STEM leadership roles. She notes, “Only 30% of the senior leadership at NOAA is female – and the number was far lower when I was first hired as a director. Initially, I didn’t think too much about it, but I soon became aware of the lack of female camaraderie at that level.”
Consequently, Libby has consciously increased her efforts to encourage other women scientists. She says, “I have a cadre of women that I’ve mentored through the years. When I see an appropriate job opening at NOAA or elsewhere, I reach out to qualified women I know and encourage them to apply.”
She reflects, “Women tend to second-guess themselves when it comes to competing for leadership positions, so I do my best to counter that impulse.”
Indeed, encouraging others to act is something Libby does every day, as one more step toward changing the calculus on climate change. As a scientist, she understands that the stakes are high, and as a mother and grandmother, she knows that inaction is an option we can ill afford.
Happily, Libby remains optimistic. She observes, “I appreciate the gravity of what’s happening more profoundly than a lay person might, but I also know that humans are really good at innovating our way out of problems.” And she is confident that the scientific community is up to the challenge, with NOAA helping to lead the way. “I love it here,” she says. “My colleagues are smart, driven, and committed to their mission of understanding our natural world and protecting its resources.”
Libby also draws comfort from her personal history. “I have five siblings, all of whom attended Potomac – Lucy ’68, Garrett ’70, Sanford ’72, Edward ’75, and Hope ’81. We were a force!” she recalls with a chuckle. “And many in my family have pursued careers in education or environmental fields.”
In fact, Libby’s two adult children now work in renewable energy. “They spend their days thinking creatively about their impact on the world,” she notes with pride. “The next generation is taking climate change seriously. So I remain hopeful.”
As a program director at NOAA for more than 12 years and the first female to occupy a leadership position in her division, Libby Jewett ’78 has made it clear: She’s committed to moving the needle on climate change.
Teddy Nemeroff ’97 is a leader in the complex world of international cybersecurity and technology policy.
Whether it’s defying the naysayers who try to pigeonhole her into a single musical genre or swerving off a country road to save her life, Alyson Cambridge ’97 has found that following a prescribed path will never be part of her story.
Author and illustrator Jamie Potter ’01 creates stories that spark the imagination of young readers and remind them that they have the ability to adapt and thrive in the face of challenges.
For Grant Hoechst Jackson ’14, flexibility is key. Whether he’s composing and playing music or leading game-design teams at Naughty Dog, Grant maintains an open and agile perspective – empowering himself
As president and CEO of Leading Harvest, Kenny Fahey ’04 focuses on harnessing the power of the business sector to drive positive environmental and social outcomes in agriculture.