In the last nine years, Dr. David Palandro’s work as a Senior Aquatic & Marine Environmental Advisor for ExxonMobil outside of Houston, Texas, has taken him to over 50 countries on six continents– earning him the unexpected perk of having flight privileges on three different airlines. It’s a demanding job requiring incident response skills and a kind of quick-on-your-feet (or, your fins!) readiness and grit that no one really teaches you, Palandro said. And while this former bartender and teacher from New York never would have guessed that he’d work for an oil and gas company one day, he continues to enjoy every challenge and opportunity along the way.
Palandro earned his M.S. from the USF CMS in 2000, and his Ph.D. in 2006 under the advisement of Dr. Frank Muller-Karger. Before his transition to industry, he was a Research Scientist for the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) in St. Petersburg, Florida for six years, where he leveraged his CMS work using remote sensing to study coral reefs in the Florida Keys.
We wanted to learn more about Palandro’s wildly interesting, non-linear career path.
Q: Tell us more about your work for ExxonMobil.
A: I was hired into ExxonMobil’s research company to work on oil spill response research, and eventually became the team lead for the group. I moved to the centralized corporate group two years ago, and that’s where I now serve as the Senior Aquatic & Marine Environmental Advisor. My job has two components: tactical and strategic.
The tactical part is more real time by supporting projects. This may be helping to write or review environmental plans or reports or working with local regulators and nonprofit organizations to gain alignment on all kinds of items.
The strategic part involves developing environmental standards and processes to guide how we operate. This often includes representing ExxonMobil on various committees and panels, such as the International Oil and Gas Producers and IPIECA Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Working Group. (IPIECA is the global oil and gas industry association for advancing environmental and social performance.) This also includes emergency response training; I solo or team teach a total of four internal courses, including Environmental Monitoring and University of Spill Management. I also serve as one of four senior section chiefs and together we work on emergency response planning and procedures.
Q: Describe your experience at USF CMS.
A: Overall, I had a great experience at CMS. I have built lifelong friendships that formed the basis of my professional network, which includes all of the marine science entities in St. Pete. This becomes a powerful asset in one’s career, and I continue to leverage my network to this day.
In the beginning of graduate work you are just trying to figure out which end is up and what has to happen next. Once you have that clarity, you then try to find unique ways to get the work done. For me, it was strongly leveraging the FWRI corals group so that I could collect field data. While I was a graduate student, I was an extra science diver for them and they gave me the opportunity to collect data relevant to my dissertation. By the time writing happens, most folks, including me, are just ready to be done and move on.
Q: What do you like about what you do?
A: I work with some amazing people throughout the industry and around the world. They are smart, hard-working, and motivated. I felt I had to leave government to make what I felt was a real difference in environmental management. I get to work in places where environmental management is in its infancy or is simply not a priority (such as west Africa), and I get to influence how they manage resources and formulate a plan to do so sustainably for the long term. I also still really enjoy mentoring and teaching. The travel is still pretty unique as well. I’ve been places and seen some amazing parts of the world. I guess my favorite was Papua New Guinea; the people and nature are amazing.
Q: Is your current career what you dreamt of as a kid?
A: Never in a million years. I knew pretty early on that science was the right place for me. Through my dissertation and into my time at FWRI, I was mostly planning to pursue a faculty position. Industry was nowhere on my radar. I have come to really appreciate the balance I currently have of having to make real time decisions quickly and as needed, combined with deeper, strategic thinking.
Q: What skills/values/experiences did you gain from CMS were helpful in your career?
A: Adaptability, creative thinking, and the opportunity to engage with so many folks in similar fields literally down or around the block from us. Again, that network provided experiences well beyond what I did for just my studies. I also highly valued the opportunities to build up the ‘soft skills’ — from taking scientific writing as a course, to giving presentations and participating in great conversations among peers and ‘actual’ scientists from USF and around St. Pete. To me, St. Pete is the hub for marine science: university, state agency, two federal agencies, and more. I promote that selling point of the community whenever I can. And, of course, access to world class research.
Q: This might be a hard question. If you had ONE piece of advice to impart to aspiring marine scientists in five sentences or less, what would it be?
A: Nope, it’s not hard at all:
Don’t say no. Take the opportunities to work on other projects and learn about the
other parts of marine science than the one you’re doing your project on.
Don’t just be a marine scientist. Develop a second or third set of skills. I tell this to every one of the grad students whose committees I serve on. Oftentimes, it’s that second skill that sets you apart when it’s time to get a job. I was hired at FWC/FWRI for my knowledge of remote sensing, not marine biology. I was hired at ExxonMobil for my knowledge of oil spill response, not marine biology. My role at ExxonMobil now is the first time I was placed into a role for actually being a marine biologist.
Master the ‘soft skills’: writing, presenting, networking and simply being able to talk to a broad range of folks. They will pay off almost as much as the technical. You should be able to describe your research in 5 minutes to a 5th grader, a scientist in your field, or to your grandparent. And they should all be able to understand it.