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Flying high with meteorologist Joanne Simpson

No earthbound pioneer, Joanne Gerould Simpson, SB’43, SM’45, PhD’49, prefers to explore the air. In fact, Simpson—chief scientist for meteorology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center for the past ten years—took her first course in meteorology so she could obtain her pilot’s license as a member of the U of C’s student flying club. The interest generated by that course turned into a 50-year career in which she broadened horizons for both women and meteorology. In 1983, she received the American Meteorological Society’s highest honor, the Carl-Gustav Rossby Research Medal. This past year, the Ms. Foundation named her one of its top female role models of 1998.

When Simpson first decided to pursue meteorology, a professor told her that World War II was making it necessary to train people in meteorology who could in turn teach cadets. In the fall of 1942, Simpson received a scholarship from the National Weather Bureau and began Chicago’s undergraduate meteorology program. Upon receiving her B.S., she taught meteorology to aviation cadets at New York University and to students at Chicago.

At war’s end, Simpson says, women were expected to return home and “get behind the mop.” Simpson, however, wanted to earn her Ph.D. in meteorology. Told that because the job required working at night and flying in airplanes to do research, it was “totally inappropriate for a woman to be a meteorologist,” she disregarded the advice. In 1947, she took a course on tropical meteorology with teacher Herbert Riehl, PhD’47, who became her mentor. “A light bulb lit above my head,” she says. “That turned out to be the beginning of my most important collaboration with anyone.” In 1949, she became the U of C’s first female Ph.D. in meteorology.

After teaching physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology for two years, she joined Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She continued to collaborate with Riehl, and together they developed the “Hot Tower Theory.” That theory posits that all the energy needed to drive atmospheric circulation is released by just a few—around 1,500 at any given moment—hot towers, or clouds that measure up to 15 kilometers high. They applied the idea of cloud towers to hurricanes as well. When Riehl and Bob Simpson founded the National Hurricane Research Project in the mid-1950s, she was named an adviser. In 1965, she and Bob were married; together they have five children and six grandchildren.

Leaving Woods Hole in 1960, Joanne Simpson worked at UCLA, the Experimental Meteorology Laboratory in Coral Gables, Florida, and the University of Virginia. In 1979, she became head of the severe storms branch of Goddard Space Flight Center. The Greenbelt, MD, center studies Earth and its environment, the solar system, and the universe through observations from space. Nine years later, she was promoted to Goddard’s chief scientist for meteorology.

In that post, Simpson mentors younger scientists and works on algorithms and computer models and simulations of clouds. Her latest project is analyzing data from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite, which measures tropical and subtropical rainfall using microwave and visible infrared sensors. Simpson’s work focuses on the large number of hurricanes that occurred last year.
Another, more personal project is preparing her papers for the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe College. It is, she says, an opportunity both to write up her research and to show how real science works. “In science, you develop ten ideas and only one of them turns out to be right. That’s only normal,” she says. “You run into dead ends and you have to rethink the whole problem.”—Q.J.

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