with meteorologist Joanne Simpson
No earthbound pioneer, Joanne Gerould Simpson, SB43, SM45,
PhD49, prefers to explore the air. In fact, Simpsonchief
scientist for meteorology at NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center
for the past ten yearstook her first course in meteorology
so she could obtain her pilots license as a member of the
U of Cs 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 Societys 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 Chicagos undergraduate meteorology program. Upon
receiving her B.S., she taught meteorology to aviation cadets at
New York University and to students at Chicago.
At wars 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, PhD47, 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 Cs 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 fewaround 1,500 at any given momenthot 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 Goddards 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. Simpsons 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. Thats only
normal, she says. You run into dead ends and you have
to rethink the whole problem.Q.J.