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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