Kathy Sullivan: From the sea to the stars

Cowell ’73, Earth sciences


A scientist, astronaut, and award-winning educator, Kathy Sullivan was the first American woman to walk in space and is the former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

An accomplished oceanographer, Sullivan earned a Ph.D. in geology at Dalhousie University in Canada after graduating from UC Santa Cruz. She served as a member of three NASA space shuttle missions and dived 8,500 feet to the East Pacific Rise in the deep-sea submersible Alvin.

Sullivan served as NOAA administrator from March 2014 to January 2017. She had previously served as NOAA's deputy administrator and chief scientist, overseeing a research and operations portfolio that ranged from fisheries biology and climate change to weather forecasting and satellite construction. Before returning to NOAA, she served for 10 years as president and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, one of the nation's leading science museums, and as the inaugural director of the Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education Policy at Ohio State University. She has also served on the National Science Board and as an oceanographer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

Sullivan entered UC Santa Cruz as a foreign languages major and discovered she needed three science classes to fulfill general education requirements. After trying what she described as "every trick in the book to get out of the requirement," Sullivan enrolled in oceanography and Earth sciences classes, which proved a turning point in her life. She still recalls the strong encouragement and support she received from faculty.

"The faculty let learning flourish," she says. "We pursued discovery together, and they treated us like peers.”