Dian Seidel is a senior climate scientist in the Climate Variability and Change Analysis group of the NOAA Air Resources Lab in Silver Spring, Maryland. Internationally recognized for her research on observations of climate change in the upper-air, Dr. Seidel feels that communicating science to broader audiences is an integral part of her job. She does this through media interviews, science fairs and other educational events, and via American Meteorological Society outreach efforts. She is the 2010 recipient of the NOAA Research Albritton Outstanding Science Communicator Award for her efforts to advance our understanding of global climate change. In this Q&A interview with Dr. Seidel, she offers insights on her career and life as a scientist.
1. Why is your research important?
We are trying to understand how the climate system has changed during the past half century or so, which is important for two main reasons. The first is that we need to understand the causes of past climate changes, such as increases in greenhouse gases, loss of stratospheric ozone, changes in the Sun, and the natural variations of the climate system. This sort of attribution work depends on first being able to quantitatively describe climate variations. The second reason is that society needs better projections of how climate will change in the future, so we can plan for expected changes and avoid dangerous ones. That requires climate models, and the only way to determine if climate model forecasts are credible is to test their simulations of the past. So our work to document changes in atmospheric temperature, humidity, etc., provides a foundation for better understanding of the causes of past climate change and for improved projections of future changes.
2. What do you do to share your passion about research with broader audiences?
I like talking about science with young people, and so I enjoy giving presentations at schools, visiting with scouts and other youth groups, judging science fairs, and talking with kids about their own research projects. Kids are curious and ask really interesting questions, and I find I learn a lot by engaging with them. If you can explain something so that a child can understand, you've probably found a message that will work for older folks too.
3. What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I really enjoy being part of the scientific process, which is much bigger than me and my own rather specialized research interests. I've been doing this kind of work long enough to see how one study can inspire another, which in turn sparks other studies. So my work builds on that of other colleagues, and other people are building on what I have learned. Usually this happens in a very collegial way, through formal and informal scientific communication. And it is wonderfully supported by the "peer-review process" which is a kind of professional quality-control mechanism. When one scientist carefully considers the merits of the work of another, ideas for new research are almost inevitable. The result is a sort of communal progress that happens quite naturally but also quite rigorously. I really like that sort of professional interaction, because you develop an enormous respect for your colleagues, which is the basis of great friendships. And you develop a sense of pride for your profession, knowing that your work contributes to a much bigger endeavor whose end result is the advancement of human understanding of the world around us.
4. Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
Well, I work at NOAA's Air Resources Laboratory, so I have to say that I do most of my work in a lab. But it's probably not the kind of lab that most people think of when they hear that word. I don't use special instruments or chemicals, and I certainly don't wear a white lab coat. Our lab is really a pretty standard office building. Much of my work involves analysis of meteorological observations, so I spend a lot of my time using computers to quality-control data, perform statistical tests, and create graphs to display data. Another big part of my job is reading and writing, which I also do using computers.
5. What in your lab could you not live without?
My colleagues. Although I'm not the type of person who needs to be in constant contact with people, I really could not do my job without my co-workers. Almost all of my studies are collaborations, and working closely with other scientists is the best part of my job. They are a great sounding board for ideas, they provide expertise that I lack, and they help keep me motivated. I hope I do the same for them!
6. If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?
That's easy. It would be a system that could measure the properties of the atmosphere (such as temperature, humidity, air pressure, winds, ozone and other chemicals, and aerosol particles) with very high accuracy and precision. It would last and perform well for a long time, decades or centuries, so that we could really monitor changes in our environment. I've spent my whole research career trying to make sense of decades of archived weather observations, to see what they tell us about changes in climate. But because those observations were not originally designed for the purpose of climate monitoring, and because the instruments have changed over time, there are a lot of problems in the data that need to be identified and removed before we can even start to analyze the data for climate research. I've been working with colleagues to help establish a reference atmospheric observing system, but we still have a long way to go in that effort. My hope is that the next generation of climate scientists will have a much better set of measurements to analyze than I have had. Oh, and one more thing I'd ask of this new miracle instrument is to be like Sherman and Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine and observe atmospheric conditions in the past, so that we could answer questions that our current data archive simply can't address.
7. When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
When I was in high school and college, I got excited by what was then called the "ecology movement". People were starting to realize the very significant effects of pollution on our environment, on ecosystems, and on human health. I wanted to be part of the solution to those problems, and the two most obvious career paths seemed to be the law and science. After spending one summer as an intern in a law office and in the local district court, I figured science was the better choice for me.
8. What's at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
There's a little publication from the National Academies of Science entitled On Being a Scientist, that I think all scientists should read. It talks about professional ethics and scientific integrity, topics that might not be part of our scientific training but really should be. Just like in business, law, politics, and sports, scientists need to develop personal and professional codes of conduct and to uphold high ethical standards. This booklet is easy to read and really helps stimulate thinking about these issues. And it's available free online from the National Academies Press at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12192.
9. What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?
I never imagined that scientific assessment work would be such an important part of my job. These international efforts to summarize and evaluate our understanding of science issues of importance to society have become increasingly prominent. They can be very time consuming, but they are intellectually very stimulating, because you really need to consider the whole body of relevant work, not just your own specialty area. It turns out that they also are great science stimulators, because when you get a group of scientists together to sort out complicated issues, ideas for new research almost automatically arise.
10. Do you have an outside hobby?
Yes, lots, probably too many. I'm into fitness and enjoy yoga, swimming, biking, and dance. I like reading fiction and am involved in a couple of book clubs. I enjoy knitting and gardening and crossword puzzles. And I'm involved in a few community activities that keep me busy.
11. What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
I'd be a massage therapist. For a while I was simultaneously enrolled in both a PhD program in meteorology and a massage therapy certification program. I got the meteorology degree, but not the massage certificate, but I still think it's a great profession.
12. Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
I'm not much of a historian, but I guess I'd pick Benjamin Franklin. He's probably better known as a statesman, a printer, and a bon vivant than as a scientist, but he did make some pretty amazing meteorological discoveries. His famous experiment with a key and a kite showed that lightning was essentially electricity. And he may have been the first to recognize the effects of volcanoes on climate when he connected the eruption of a volcano in Iceland, a persistent haze over Europe, and the very cold winter of 1783-4. Franklin's insatiable curiosity, incredible energy, and down-to-earth humanity are an inspiration to me. As he said "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn."
Dian Seidel has worked in NOAA's Air Resources Lab for most of her career, since earning a doctorate in meteorology from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has received Commerce Department gold and bronze medals and the NOAA Administrator's Award. Visit the Air Resources Lab's climate web site to learn more about her research.