NASA Spotlight: Earth Climate Scientist Dr. Yolanda Shea
Dr. Yolanda Shea is a climate scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center. She’s the project scientist for the CLARREO Pathfinder (CPF) mission, which is an instrument that will launch to the International Space Station to measure sunlight reflected from Earth. It will help us understand how much heat is being trapped by our planet’s atmosphere. Her mission is designed to help us get a clearer picture than we currently have of the Earth’s system and how it is changing
Yolanda took time from studying our home planet to answer questions about her life and career! Get to know this Earth scientist:
What inspired you to study climate science?
Starting in early middle school I became interested in the explanations behind the weather maps and satellite images shown on TV. I liked how the meteorologists talked about the temperature, moisture, and winds at different heights in the atmosphere, and then put that together to form the story of our weather forecasts. This made me want to learn more about Earth science, so I went to college to explore this interest more.
The summer after my junior year of college, I had an internship during which my first assignment was to work with a program that estimated ocean currents from satellite measurements. I was fascinated in the fact that scientists had discovered a way to map ocean currents from space!
Although I had learned about Earth remote sensing in my classes, this was my first taste of working with, and understanding the details of, how we could learn more about different aspects of the physical world from satellite measurements.
This led to my learning about other ways we can learn about Earth from space, and that includes rigorous climate monitoring, which is the area I work in now.
What does a day in your life look like?
Before I start my workday, I like to take a few minutes to eat breakfast, knit (I’m loving sock knitting right now!), and listen to a podcast or audio book. Each workday really looks different for me, but regardless, most days are a combination of quieter moments that I can use for individual work and more interactive times when I’m interfacing with colleagues and talking about project or science issues. Both types of work are fun in different ways, but I’m glad I have a mixture because all researchers need that combination of deep thinking to wrap our minds around complex problems and also time to tackle those problems with others and work on solving them together.
When do you feel most connected to Earth?
I’ve always loved sunsets. I find them peaceful and beautiful, and I love how each one is unique. They are also a beautiful reminder of the versatility of reflected light, which I study. Sitting for a moment to appreciate the beauty and calm I feel during a sunset helps me feel connected to Earth.
What will your mission – CLARREO Pathfinder – tell us about Earth?
CLARREO Pathfinder (CPF) includes an instrument that will take measurements from the International Space Station and will measure reflected sunlight from Earth. One of its goals is to demonstrate that it can take measurements with high enough accuracy so that, if we have such measurements over long periods of time, like several decades, we could detect changes in Earth’s climate system. The CPF instrument will do this with higher accuracy than previous satellite instruments we’ve designed, and these measurements can be used to improve the accuracy of other satellite instruments.
How, if at all, has your worldview changed as a result of your work in climate science?
The longer I work in climate science and learn from the data about how humans have impacted our planet, the more I appreciate the fragility of our one and only home, and the more I want to take care of it.
What advice would you give your younger self?
It’s ok to not have everything figured out at every step of your career journey. Work hard, do your best, and enjoy the journey as it unfolds. You’ll inevitably have some surprises along the way, and regardless of whether they are welcome or not, you’re guaranteed to learn something.
Do you have a favorite metaphor or analogy that you use to describe what you do, and its impact, to those outside of the scientific community?
I see jigsaw puzzles as a good illustration of how different members of a science community play a diverse set of roles to work through different problems. Each member is often working on their own image within the greater puzzle, and although it might take them years of work to see their part of the picture come together, each image in the greater puzzle is essential to completing the whole thing. During my career, I’ll work on a section of the puzzle, and I hope to connect my section to others nearby, but we may not finish the whole puzzle. That’s ok, however, because we’ll hand over the work that we’ve accomplished to the next generation of scientists, and they will keep working to bring the picture to light. This is how I try to think about my role in climate science – I hope to contribute to the field in some way; the best thing about what I have done and what I will do, is that someone else will be able to build on my work and keep helping humanity come to a better understanding of our Earth system.
What is a course that you think should be part of required school curriculum?
Time and project management skills – I think students tend to learn these skills more organically from their parents and teachers, but in my experience I stumbled along and learned these skills through trial and error. To successfully balance all the different projects that I support now, I have to be organized and disciplined, and I need to have clear plans mapped out, so I have some idea of what’s coming and where my attention needs to be focused.
Another course not specifically related to my field is personal financial management. I was interested in personal finance, and that helped me to seek out information (mainly through various blogs) about how to be responsible with my home finances. There is a lot of information out there, but making sure that students have a solid foundation and know what questions to ask early on will set them to for success (and hopefully fewer mistakes) later on.
What’s the most unexpected time or place that your expertise in climate science and/or algorithms came in handy?
I think an interesting part of being an atmospheric scientist and a known sky-watcher is that I get to notice beautiful moments in the sky. I remember being on a trip with friends and I looked up (as I usually do), and I was gifted with a gorgeous sundog and halo arc. It was such a beautiful moment, and because I noticed it, my friends got to enjoy it too.
Can you share a photo or image from a memorable NASA project you’ve worked on, and tell us a little bit about why the project stood out to you?
I absolutely loved being on the PBS Kids TV Show, SciGirls for their episode SkyGirls! This featured a NASA program called Students’ Clouds Observations On-Line (S’COOL). It was a citizen science program where students from around the globe could take observations of clouds from the ground that coincided with satellite overpasses, and the intention was to help scientists validate (or check) the accuracy of the code they use to detect clouds from satellite measurements. I grew up watching educational programming from PBS, so it was an honor to be a science mentor on a TV show that I knew would reach children across the nation who might be interested in different STEM fields. In this photo, the three young women I worked with on the show and I are talking about the different types of clouds.
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NASA Spotlight: Astronaut Soichi Noguchi
Soichi Noguchi was selected as an astronaut with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in 1996. A native of Yokohama, Kanagawa, he is currently a mission specialist for NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 launch taking flight to the International Space Station on Nov. 14. Soichi will be the first international crewmember on Crew Dragon and the first international partner astronaut to fly aboard three types of orbital spacecraft – the U.S. space shuttle, the Russian Soyuz, and now the SpaceX Crew Dragon! Talk about impressive.
He received a B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering in 1989, master's degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1991, Doctor of Philosophy in Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies in 2020, all from the University of Tokyo.
Soichi took time from preparing for his historic mission to answer questions about his life and career:
You recently earned a doctorate in philosophy. What made you do it?
After my second flight, I started this research about your sensory system in zero gravity. I used a my own personal video, which I took during my last two flights at the International Space Station. I had a lot of interesting discussions amongst young professionals and students at the University of Tokyo about the research. It was a fun experience – but I would not do it again!
Space is a risky business. Why do it?
Space IS definitely a risky business. But the reward is higher than the risk so that’s why we take it.
Do you have a message for boys and girls in Japan who are interested in science and engineering?
Three words: Space. Is. Waiting.
Aside from mission objectives and tasks, what’s a personal goal for this mission?
We have a lot of interesting missions to do, but my personal goal is to return home with lots of fun stories.
What was it like to get the phone call to become an astronaut?
It was 25 years ago, but I still remember the voice vividly. I got a call from Dr. Mamoru Mohri, the very first JAXA astronaut, and he said “Welcome to the Astronaut Corps.” When I got the call to be part of the Crew-1 mission, I was a lot less nervous than when I was assigned to my first mission, but the excitement remains the same.
Can you describe your crew mate Mike Hopkins in one sentence?
He is a natural leader that takes care of the team really well, and he’s fun to play around with.
Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars… just because!
Can you share your favorite photo or video that you took in space?
My favorite photo is Mount Fuji because I see the mountain almost every day when I was a child. It’s definitely breathtaking to see Mount Fuji from space.
What personal items did you decide to pack for launch and why?
I have lots of family photos, and I would put it inside my sleep station. Definitely one of the most challenging things about spaceflight is not experiencing zero gravity, not the rocket, but time away from family.
How would you describe spacewalking outside the space station?
It’s an excursion. The view of the Earth is just breathtaking because you are just one glass away from the vacuum of space. There’s nothing between you and Earth.
What are you most excited about for the future of human space exploration?
I would say I’m most excited for interplanetary travel to become more common so that the school kids can go to Mars on their field trip.
What would you say to someone looking to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t worry, be happy!
How has spaceflight evolved since your first launch and stay aboard the International Space Station in 2005?
This is definitely an exciting moment. We’re starting to see more players in the game. SpaceX is the frontrunner, but soon we’ll see Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Axiom. So the International Space Station will soon have more players involved, and it will be a lot more fun!
Thank you for your time, Soichi, and good luck on your historic mission! Get to know a bit more about Soichi and his NASA astronaut crew mates Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins, and Shannon Walker in the video above.
Watch LIVE launch coverage beginning at 3:30 p.m. EST on Nov. 14 HERE.
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