Meet Karen Marrongelle

Meet Karen Marrongelle

It's difficult to believe that Karen Marongelle's first recorded purchase at the shop dates back to 2009. Wow! To call her a loyal customer is indeed an understatement. She is as warm and gracious and well-rounded and stylish as they come...and now a long distance client living in the Washington, D.C. area. With a PhD in Mathematics Education, she ended up as both a professor and then a dean at Portland State University. Read on to learn how she became the Chief Operating Officer at the National Science Foundation. Wow. Wow. Wow. New superhero?!? The Unstoppable Karen M!!! You'll enjoy her responses.

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you end up in Washington? What does your day-to-day look like?

I'm originally from the East Coast. I grew up in a town outside of Philadelphia, Allentown (yes, like the Billy Joel song, if you remember that). I moved to Portland over twenty years ago and fell in love with Oregon. While I grew up thinking that I would move to New York City, the first time I visited Portland I knew it was the place for me. The landscape in the West, the ethos and values of the people, resonate with me. My husband and I were married in Portland (he's from Boston), and we had our daughter in Portland. She is a proud Oregonian! 

I always loved learning and have a broad span of interests. Although I always enjoyed mathematics and computing, I also had strong interests in art, music and literature. My parents did not attend college and so as a first generation college student, my parents emphasized that I needed to study something that would lead to a job. I majored in mathematics and I snuck in a double-major in philosophy (Surprise, mom and dad, on graduation day!). I was at a small, liberal arts college and so spent a lot of time in the art studios, photography dark rooms and at the radio station. I also worked several jobs through college: bank teller, pharmacy technician, deli counter server, hardware store clerk (the list goes on and on). I really didn't know much about graduate school when I started college, but went on to earn a Masters Degree in Mathematics and a PhD in Mathematics Education (studying how people learn and how we teach collegiate mathematics), continuing to fuel my love of learning throughout my career. 


Can you tell us a bit about your career? Describe the path that took you to National Science Foundation. Can you elaborate on your position? Have you encountered challenges in the workplace as a female?

I spent 20 years at Portland State University, first as a Professor of Mathematics and later as the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Portland State is an incredible place; it is a school that impacts and changes students' lives. My own journey into and through higher education, feeling deeply grateful for the opportunities that were opened to me, inspired me to work at Portland State. The National Science Foundation funded several of my projects, working to improve education for students at Portland State and working with mathematics teachers throughout Oregon to improve learning environments for K-12 students. As I got to know the Program Officers at NSF, they encouraged me to apply for a rotation position with the NSF. NSF employs a few hundred rotators; employees from universities, science museums and other scientific organizations who spend up to four years at NSF as employees (on leave or on rotation from their home institutions). I served as a rotator from 2007-2009 at the National Science Foundation and then returned to Portland State, working as a faculty member, helping my colleagues with their federal grant applications, and working for the state on higher education policy before starting as Dean in 2014 (and working closely with Garnish gal Sona Andrews, who was the Provost when I was Dean -- we had to coordinate our outfits sometimes so that we were not both on campus wearing the same thing!). Then, NSF pulled me back! This time to lead the Directorate in which I had worked as a Program Officer. I oversaw close to $1B of federal funding in STEM education and education research investments. About a year and a half ago, the Director of the NSF asked me to take on the role of Chief Operating Officer, the second in command at NSF. I work closely with the Director and our leadership team to set priorities for science, engineering and education investments, distribute our $10B annual budget, partner with other federal agencies on issues of science, engineering and education, and partner with the network of colleges and universities throughout the United States and interested businesses and industries. NSF is unique because it is the only federal agency that funds foundational research in all areas of science and engineering. Your cellphone? The technology that powers your cell phone from chips to software to wifi and internet connections were all ideas funded by NSF decades ago. Importantly, NSF also funds basic research in the social, behavioral and economic sciences. NSF has always had a commitment to what we call Broadening Participation. This is the notion that every person should have the opportunity to succeed in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Some of our most exciting work at NSF is expanding opportunities and reaching new communities so that everyone across the country has the ability to contribute to STEM. More recently, we have been focused on developing new programs to more quickly move promising innovations into communities and societies to benefit individuals. 

Women, including women of color, have made strides in the STEM disciplines over the past several decades. However, women continue to be underrepresented in earning degrees in certain STEM disciplines, continue to experience lower pay, and continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions. I have experienced incredible support throughout my career, from both men and women. Many women in STEM experience challenges as they pursue their education and in their workplaces: slights, unfounded perceptions, hostility and harassment. We have learned much about how to prevent and respond to these type of behaviour, but it is a constant challenge. 

Did you have a turning point in your life, professional or otherwise?

My time as a rotating Program Officer at NSF was a turning point for me for several reasons. First, I experienced the great fulfillment and joy in enabling individuals and teams to take their great ideas to new heights, and to simply enable great ideas to be implemented. Second, I got the policy bug, so to speak, understanding the importance and impact of developing sound policy. Third, I realised the impact that I could have as a member of a team working together to improve STEM education and research at a national level was much greater than I could accomplish as an individual. This experience changed the trajectory of my career. I then had amazing mentors (like Sona) who both believed in me and provided me opportunities to continue to learn and grow. 

As I learned more about higher education in the United States and STEM achievement, I also realized that I had overcome the statistics: a first-generation female student who earned a PhD in mathematics is not typical. Luckily, I didn't know it wasn't typical while I was pursuing my education and career path. This motivates me to mentor others, open up opportunities, and ensure pathways are visible. 

What is one lesson you keep trying to learn but still struggle with?

The most fulfilling and most challenging aspect of my leadership work is motivating others and working in effective, innovative teams. Balancing the individual motivations with the vision of an organization is delicate, thoughtful work. It can be some of the most challenging, but when you make progress and breakthroughs, it is some of the most fulfilling. 

On to some style questions. How has your sense of style changed over time?

 I've always appreciated detail and I have focused more and more on detail in the pieces that I purchase. I like small, but impactful details that catch the eye. I've had to be more mindful of my clothing choices in these different leadership positions, but I always looked to not be cookie cutter in my fashion. I know the boundaries, and where I am comfortable pushing, and I will push. I like Erica's pieces so much because they are unique and can fulfill my sense of individuality, and I can style them to conform and not conform all at the same time. 

What do you put on when you want to show the world you mean business? And how about when you really want to unplug?

 I like bold colors and defined lines when I want to show that I mean business. When I want to unplug, I go with soft fabrics, flannels, and jeans. I equate unplugging with getting out into nature: skiing, hiking, camping, where clothes are functional. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Thank you for this opportunity!

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