Addressing the Challenge of a Changing Climate

NASA Chief Scientist and Senior Climate Advisor Katherine Calvin (B.S. ’03, mathematics; B.S. ’03, computer science) will share her story with graduates and their families at the CMNS Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony in May.
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When Katherine Calvin (B.S. ’03, mathematics; B.S. ’03, computer science) was invited to be the keynote speaker at the 2024 CMNS Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony at the University of Maryland, she couldn’t help thinking back to the day she graduated from UMD, 21 years ago.

"Since I received the invitation, I have spent a lot of time thinking about my own graduation—what it was like to be graduating and what I wish I had known then,” Calvin said. “I remember rushing to finish finals, being both excited and nervous for the next step, which was moving to California for grad school, and being glad I had one last summer with my friends and family in Maryland. I wasn’t sure where I would go after grad school and certainly didn’t expect to become NASA’s chief scientist.”

Calvin’s career journey has indeed taken her to places she never expected. In January 2022, she was appointed chief scientist and senior climate advisor at NASA, becoming the first person ever to serve in that dual role. The position puts her at the forefront of NASA’s climate change initiatives, advising NASA leadership on the agency’s science programs and strategic planning and offering recommendations to guide the agency’s climate-related science, technology and infrastructure programs.

A distinguished Earth scientist, Calvin spent 16 years conducting climate studies at the Joint Global Change Research Institute (JGCRI), a partnership between the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and UMD. Her latest role at NASA reflects her ongoing personal commitment to addressing the challenges of a changing climate.

“When it comes to my goals as a scientist, I really relate to NASA’s mission: NASA explores the unknown in air and space, innovates for the benefit of humanity, and inspires the world through discovery,” Calvin explained. “My work on climate change has focused on understanding and informing for the benefit of all and more recently inspiring the next generation.”

Research with meaning

Always a lover of the outdoors, Calvin grew up with an inquisitive mind and a special appreciation for nature and the environment. As an undergrad at UMD, she was drawn to mathematics and computer science. Then, when she headed to Stanford for graduate school, she took her undergraduate skill set in a new scientific direction, studying the complex changes in our planet’s climate.

“I started researching climate change in grad school,” Calvin said. “By spending a lot of time outside, I developed a deep appreciation for nature and an awareness of weather. Climate change was an opportunity for me to bring together my technical skills with something that mattered to me. “

In 2008, after earning her M.S. and Ph.D. in management science and engineering at Stanford University, Calvin joined JGCRI, where her research contributed to a model for analyzing and exploring the relationships between human and Earth systems in the context of climate change. She also worked on the Department of Energy’s Energy Exascale Earth System Model, which is used to analyze the past, present and future state of the Earth system. The math and computer science skills Calvin mastered at UMD played a key role in her work.

“The research involved developing and using mathematical models to understand human and Earth systems, and I helped implement mathematical equations describing energy, water, land and climate in computer code,” Calvin explained. “Math and computer science serve as common languages among the sciences, so by writing down a problem in a mathematical equation or a block of computer code, other scientists can understand it.”

Calvin has co-authored more than 150 publications, contributing to the third U.S. National Climate Assessment in 2014 and reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In July 2023, she was selected as Co-Chair of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the 7th Assessment Cycle.

With decades of data on Earth, atmospheres and other planets, NASA research offers a unique perspective on changing conditions, strategies to address sustainability issues and future climate initiatives. Interpreting and sharing that data is part of Calvin’s mission.

“NASA’s climate research includes observations, models, applied science and technology development. As senior climate advisor, my job is to help connect climate research within NASA and communicate that research externally to other agencies, international partners and the public,” Calvin said. “I led the development of NASA’s climate strategy, which summarizes some of NASA’s contributions to climate research and outlines opportunities for the future. I was also involved in developing NASA’s Earth Information Center, which provides information about how Earth is changing.”

For Calvin, the goal is to give people the information they need to understand and respond to the changing climate in their communities.

“We know the planet’s climate is changing and this has impacts on our daily lives, but we are at a point where we need to go beyond collecting data and move toward making sure it can be easily used,” Calvin said. “We want to make sure people can take our data and use it when they are making decisions, whether it’s about climate mitigation, adaptation or planning.”

Beyond inspiring

More than two years into her job, Calvin finds her work and colleagues beyond inspiring.

“NASA is an amazing place to work,” she said. “I’ve had many exciting experiences in the last two years, including attending my first satellite launch, experiencing the annular eclipse and seeing the Earth Information Center open. The best part of each of those experiences has been the people. I’m continually inspired by our scientists and the work that they do.”

Calvin has come a long way since her days at UMD—she’s done groundbreaking climate research, traveled the world, even hiked Kilimanjaro—and she’s always looking ahead to the next challenge. As she brings that spirit, her experiences at NASA, and her passion for science and the environment to the 2024 CMNS Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony, she hopes to inspire this year’s graduates to keep learning, keep asking questions and enjoy the journey, even if it doesn’t take them exactly where they expected.

“One of my former professors once told me that it’s okay not to know what you want to do in the future,” Calvin explained. “Just make the best decision each step of the way.”

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