From Trinity to NASA: Anne R. Douglass ’71: Informing the World About Climate Change
By Jason H. Pier ’08
When Dr. Anne R. Douglass ’71, then Anne Ritger, stepped onto Trinity’s campus as a freshman in 1967, she was absolutely sure she was going to major in mathematics and then expected to become a high school teacher. After a less-than-engaging experience with her high school physics class, Douglass’ excellent high school math teacher inspired her to a path toward her bachelor of arts in math at Trinity. Trinity’s liberal arts requirements meant that all math majors had to take a physics course to graduate. Douglass decided to get the requirement out of the way her freshman year by taking introductory physics, which she expected, “would be a distasteful experience.” What a difference a teacher can make.
Douglass’ professor of physics, Dr. Karen Weis Kershenstein ’64, helped her to understand how her math background helped her grasp the nature of physics. Kershenstein and math professor Dr. Marsha Sward pushed Douglass toward graduate school, a huge step for a student whose parents were not college graduates. “The idea of a Ph.D. was nearly unimaginable to me on my own,” Douglass recounted.
Graduating from Trinity in 1971 with her bachelor of arts in physics, and also having her first child the same year, Douglass went on to work toward her master of science in physics at the University of Minnesota. She also had some catching up to do in physics, as most of her fellow students came from large universities and had already taken introductory graduate-level classes. Moving from Trinity’s all-women, small-college environment to a major university in the Midwest was a huge challenge for her. She was the only woman in her initial cohort at the University of Minnesota, and she was further challenged because she had a child. “I had role models at Trinity, as both Dr. Kershenstein and Dr. Sward had babies or were expecting while I was there, so I didn’t see having a family plus a career as an impossible goal,” said Douglass. When she graduated with her master’s in physics in 1975, she had two sons.
After moving to Iowa when her husband took a position at Drake University, Douglass found that the path of studying chemical physics and ion-molecule reactions was not for her, and she decided to earn a doctorate in atmospheric physics, “bent on using my education for environmental issues that I thought would be important to my children.” She completed her doctorate in physics in 1980, and her family had grown to include three daughters. Douglass’ major professor at Iowa State University, Dr. John Stanford, went on a sabbatical year at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Space Flight Center and helped her make the connections that led to a job at NASA, where she has worked since 1981.
Douglass’ field of research is three-dimensional modeling of the evolution of atmospheric ozone and other constituents that affect ozone. As a deputy project scientist at NASA for the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), which was deployed from the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1991, she managed communication between the working scientists and NASA headquarters, and also communicated results to the worldwide scientific community and the public. Douglass said, “It was a true privilege to represent results of the UARS platform, but also a challenge to distill results from hundreds of investigations to key messages for NASA headquarters, congress, and the budget gurus.” Even before the results of UARS were broadly known, NASA began the initial planning for a new satellite, the Earth Observing System Aura (Latin for breeze). Because of her experience with UARS, she became the deputy project scientist for Aura in 1998.
The Aura Satellite collects data to be used worldwide to address critical environmental issues concerning ozone, climate and air quality. Douglass’ job with Aura was to troubleshoot issues with engineers and project management, and she worked to get the platform to launch throughout the construction phase. She was the co-lead of the Aura validation program, which coordinated ground-based measurements and a series of field campaigns to obtain auxiliary measurements used to show that the space-based measurements were taken accurately. She took over the project scientist position in 2010 when the former project scientist retired.
According to Douglass, in the troposphere (the lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere), “Aura measurements of gases are important for understanding air quality and transport of pollutant gases from one continent to another. Aura measurements of clouds and aerosols are being used to quantify their importance to climate, and to show that pollutants (aerosols) in cloud fields reduce the amount of precipitation. Aura measurements of nitrogen dioxide show that both the United States’ and Europe’s measures to reduce this pollutant have been successful during the past five years, and nitrogen dioxide decreases are apparent over most of the United States and Europe.”
In the stratosphere (the second major layer of Earth’s atmosphere), Douglass said, “Aura instruments measure ozone and gases related to ozone. This helps us monitor ozone change and understand how the ozone is increasing now that chlorofluorocarbons are no longer being produced worldwide. Ozone is also changing as the temperature changes due to carbon dioxide increase, and the ozone layer itself plays a role in the Earth’s climate.”
Aura’s international implications are significant. Douglass recalled, “When I was a student, the international character of a science career did not occur to me. Even before I was involved with Aura I had many colleagues from across the world – once you pause and reflect this is not surprising, since the environmental issues surrounding ozone…are global.” Shared resources and cooperation of multiple nations is important in the planning for future Earth science missions. NASA is highly regarded by other countries, and the countries of the world share a concern for the environment. This also means that Douglass participates in meetings in many different countries, which she enjoys.
Notably, Aura even supported the winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize by providing some of the data for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the award with former Vice President Al Gore. The data are used for many purposes, one of which is to show how transformations and relationships between transport and chemistry should be represented in global models. The data are also useful to test atmospheric models against real data. The data that Aura collects directly feeds the assessments that are part of the Montreal Protocol, an agreement signed 21 years ago by all the nations of Earth to limit the production of chlorofluorocarbons. Douglass is heavily involved in the ozone assessments for the Montreal Protocol, and producing agreement among scientists who have been trained to be independent thinkers is sometimes a considerable task.
Aura was designed for a useful life of five years, with a goal to remain operational for six years. It celebrated its five-year anniversary on July 15, 2009, and was recently approved for extended operations until at least 2013. As the satellite and equipment age, Douglass’ role is to work to get the maximum scientific return from the instruments. Her group also continues public outreach activities and education about the information that Aura collects.
As for her personal view of climate change, she is adamant: it is a matter of evidence, not belief. “Nothing with respect to climate change annoys me more than hearing what fraction of people ‘believe’ in climate change, as if it were Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy,” she said. “Without question,” carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere, there is a limited supply of fossil fuels on the planet, and some countries consume more than their fair share of said fuels, stressing the stability of governments. Douglass said, “Do I believe that events like Hurricane Katrina came about because of climate change? Well, there have been severe storms for a long time, and we have no way of running a controlled experiment to test if Katrina would have failed to develop or been less severe without anthropogenic influence. My answer is that the questions that ask about specific events and attribution of those events to a single cause are themselves flawed.” She continued, “My regret is that framing questions about climate change in this way seems to be the only way to get the attention of some lawmakers and citizens.”
Douglass said there are two possibilities for climate change – it will be serious or it will not be serious. Similarly, we may choose to act to counter climate change, or we may fail to act. “The consequences of inaction if we are correct are far greater than the consequences of action if we are incorrect,” she said. “There are multiple positive results for action, including a cleaner environment, expansion of the worldwide ‘middle class,’ and conservation of the limited resources in the Earth.” Douglass would like to see the question of action framed in terms of benefits of action, regardless of how accurate the prediction of consequences is.
As for Douglass’ realistic expectations for the future of climate change, she hopes that leaders will stop arguing about the details and begin to take action and make changes. She explains, “There are transgressions in communication on both sides of the argument, with some feeling that scientists must speak with urgency, certainty and with a single voice. The certainty is difficult when there is still so much to learn, and scientists, policy makers and citizens often speak different languages. My optimistic view is that we will learn to speak more clearly soon. My pessimistic view is that change to renewable energy will take place when forced by economics, i.e., only as the price of oil rises.”
As a woman, mother and scientist, Douglass did not think of herself as a pioneer, noting that when she graduated from Trinity in 1971 the world was already changing. “There were senior people interested in my success” while at the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University and NASA, said Douglass. “I also entered the field of atmospheric chemistry and dynamics at a time when the field was expanding with the excitement of the discovery of the ozone hole, and there was so much work that all hands were welcomed and valued. It is far more difficult to be a pioneer if the senior people are not supportive and if the funding situation is competitive. However, I took advantage of the opportunities that were given to me, both by noticing that I had the good fortune of opportunity, and by working hard to earn the respect of the people who supported me.”
Many of the issues that Douglass faced in 1971 remain for a scientist who is a woman and mother entering the field today. Two challenges a scientist and mother still face are teenagers who need as much time, love and care as pre-schoolers, and the timeline for a tenured position at a university. “Graduate school, followed by a postdoctoral appointment, followed by seven years of crazy work to achieve tenure places a person pretty clearly past 35, but the biological clock ticks for women more loudly than men,” said Douglass.
When contributing to the book Motherhood: The Elephant in the Laboratory, she reflected on her experiences as a mother and scientist and, through focus groups, gained valuable insight into the experiences of scientists who are women and mothers. “We have learned that postdoctoral fellows are not covered by family leave legislation (FMLA), and have met more than one woman who lost her postdoctoral appointment due to pregnancy during the first decade of the 21st century,” said Douglass. “Even at NASA, maternity leave for the postdoc is at the discretion of the person who does the hiring. The good news is that the issues are more openly discussed; solutions are being sought both by young students and by university administrators. The big plus for the young women of today is that there are more of them. At Goddard, we have a ladies’ lunch two times per month – when I started there were simply not enough ladies to have a ladies’ lunch!”
In addition to her extensive career, Douglass has five grown children, participates in competitive 5K and two-mile runs, and has practiced yoga for eight years. She talks about yoga “like any obnoxious convert talks about anything,” saying it has helped her strength, flexibility and serenity – it has even made her an inch taller! She also enjoyed being a Girl Scout leader from the time her children were young until 12 years after her youngest had outgrown scouting. “My favorite part of scouting was giving the girls a challenge that they thought was too much for them, encouraging them through it (riding a horse or hiking that cliff edge on the Billy Goat Trail), and then watching them take in the power that comes from their achievement. I miss the campouts still.”
Douglass believes that a liberal arts education is still important. “In my career, I have come to value the liberal education I received at Trinity. It is far more important to write (and to speak) in a science career than many people appreciate. I have writing skills that I attribute to the liberal arts that far surpass the skills of most of my colleagues.” Douglass advises current students that if they enjoy puzzles and finding the solutions, there is no better field for them than science, though she encourages them to “stick with a core discipline like chemistry or physics as undergraduate students, because the depth you acquire will serve you well, and there is plenty of time to specialize in graduate school. So if you want to be a scientist, seize the opportunity and learn everything that you can.”
To find out more about the Earth Observing Satellite Aura, go to http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/aura/main/index.html