UGA climate scientist wants more African Americans in science fields

06 Feb

Editors note: In recognition of Black History Month, this is the first in a series of profiles on prominent African Americans living in the Athens area.

Climatologist Marshall Shepherd lectures about Urban Effects on Cloud Dynamics, in Athens, Ga. on Thursday, Jan, 31, 2013.  (Richard Hamm/Staff) OnlineAthens/Athens Banner-Herald

While growing up in Canton, Ga., University of Georgia climate scientist Marshall Shepherd knew he wanted to grew to become an entomologist.

An allergic reaction to bee venom stung that ambition, but a sixth-grade science project on meteorology showed him a new direction.

“I was always interested in why things were happening,” Shepherd said.

It worked out.

The valedictorian of his Cherokee High School class, Shepherd went on to get three meteorology degrees from Florida State University, which has one of the country’s top climate science programs.

He spent a dozen years working for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center conducting research and helping design programs that harness technology to help scientists better record and understand what’s going on in the atmosphere.

Shepherd was deputy project scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement missions, which next year will use an international network of satellites to measure precipitation almost everywhere around the globe. The mission is designed to improve weather forecasting accuracy as well as climate-change models.

Shepherd, now 43, left NASA in 2006 to come to UGA’s Geography Department, where he’s now head of UGA’s Atmospheric Sciences Program, but just one of several researchers carving out national reputations for themselves.

Shepherd is regularly quoted about climate and weather in the New York Times, CNN and other media with national reach. He’s a national leader as scientists begin to understand just how huge cities like Atlanta affect weather and climate.

And this year, he’s also president of the American Meteorological Society, the nation’s oldest and largest professional organization of climate scientists.

In that role, he’ll be heading to Washington later this month to testify before Congress about climate change.

As AMS president, Shepherd is a kind of spokesman for the society and for the nation’s atmospheric scientists, a category that includes weather forecasters, climatologists and related fields.

“We don’t try to lobby,” he said. “We try to be an authentic voice on matters of weather and climate.”

Shepherd is also an African American in a field where very few African Americans thrive. Less than 2 percent of the professionals in atmospheric science are African American, he estimates.

He’s not the first African American to be president of the AMS, however. That honor belongs to a man named Warren Washington, whom Shepherd calls a “defining colleague in my career.”

Washington developed some of the very first climate models, the giant computer programs that climate scientists use to understand where we’re heading and how it will play out as the earth’s atmosphere and oceans heat up.

Most of the time being African American is irrelevant, but sometimes Shepherd feels it — people wondering whether he got to where he is not on merit but because of extra help, for example.

“There’s sort of this surprise, like ‘Oh, you’re so well-spoken,’” he said.

That just makes Shepherd a bit more determined.

Shepherd also makes a special effort to recruit bright young African Americans into atmospheric sciences or other science-related fields.

A role model in the community, Shepherd’s example hopefully might inspire others, not just African Americans, to pursue similar goals.


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