Gail Skofronick-Jackson: Falling Snow Detective

Gail Skofronick-Jackson. Credit: NASA | Rebecca Roth

Gail Skofronick-Jackson once described her job to a school group as that of a “falling snow detective,” who must use science to crack the case. Skofronick-Jackson is an atmospheric scientist who focuses on the detection of falling snow from space, which is essential to understanding the flow of energy and heat throughout the Earth. Using remote sensing techniques, she observes falling snow for applications in everything from flood prediction to climate change modeling. Skofronick-Jackson cites her father James Skofronick, a retired physics professor, as her main scientific inspiration.

“I think he was my greatest role model,” she said.

It seems that his influence was effective. Dr. Skofronick-Jackson, now a deputy project scientist and physical scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, has earned numerous scientific degrees — a bachelor, master, and doctorate in electrical engineering.

Skofronick-Jackson came to NASA in 1997 as a contractor. She went directly into data analysis for Earth and atmospheric science.

“My Ph.D. was in analyzing the data that came in from aircraft and spacecraft measurements, and the analysis of that data revolved around atmospheric science,” Skofronick-Jackson said. Although she started at the bottom, reviewing and writing scientific journal papers, she quickly made steps up toward doing her own research.

“About my second year here, my sponsor (James Wang) said, ‘There’s a call for proposals for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM). Why don’t you do one?’ So I wrote one and I was actually successful,” Skofronick-Jackson explained.

It was through her work on the TRMM project that she experienced the breakthrough that shapes her work even now. Since her Ph.D. days, Skofronick-Jackson had been working with the concept of using very high-frequency radar channels to study ice above the melting layer (the altitude band in which icy precipitation turns to liquid). A colleague, James Weinman, suggested to Skofronick-Jackson that she could use the same high-frequency channels to study icy precipitation all the way to the Earth’s surface—falling snow. “It was a light bulb moment!” Skofronick-Jackson said.

That realization set Skofronick-Jackson off on a path that she is still following.

“That allowed for us to theoretically prove that we could measure falling snow. There are a few satellites up there now that have these high-frequency channels, but they weren’t designed for falling snow. With the GPM (Global Precipitation Measurement) mission, we were able to add these channels so that we’re able to detect the falling snow from the spacecraft.”

Engineers check on the GPM spacecraft after successful completion of its first comprehensive performance test.Credit: NASA.

GPM is one of Skofronick-Jackson’s main projects right now. In 2003, Skofronick-Jackson was hired as a civil servant for NASA, and she now holds dual positions at Goddard Space Flight Center. As a physical scientist, Skofronick-Jackson spends her time estimating the rate and type of falling snow particles from spacecraft observations. In her second role as a deputy project scientist for GPM, she spends much of the day in meetings. “We’re doing a lot of education and public outreach right now, or I’ll have a meeting with the project (the engineers who are integrating and testing the spacecraft).” She also oversees various scientific and engineering teams to ensure that everything is on track for GPM’s early 2014 launch.

Skofronick-Jackson is eager to get data from GPM.

“You can get a 3-D structure of the shapes and amounts of precipitation-sized particles throughout the whole column (section of cloud in a radar’s range of study), and that can then be used in weather forecasting and climate forecasting models,” Skofronick-Jackson said.

According to Skofronick-Jackson, current weather and climate models lack high-quality layer-by-layer precipitation data, so GPM will mean large improvements. She anticipates improved weather forecasting and a deeper understanding of global warming based on GPM’s data. The core satellite that Skofronick-Jackson is working on will be part of a network of satellites launched by GPM partners that will provide 3-hour global coverage. The core satellite will be used to calibrate measurements for the entire network, and the data from the satellite network will be able to help predict landslides and drought. “If a drought’s occurring where they’re very dependent on agriculture, you can send food early. It’s an early famine warning system,” Skofronick-Jackson said.

One of the biggest challenges for atmospheric scientists is a projected lack of satellite missions, she said.

“In terms of precipitation science, there are no good precipitation satellites that are being planned for launch after GPM. We may have to wait until the 2020s to get another satellite. TRMM was launched in 1997, so we’ll have a record going from ’97 through however long GPM lasts. We would like to keep up that high-quality precipitation record, because the impact of climate change can be seen in precipitation. Precipitation is how heat is redistributed throughout the atmosphere.”

Skofronick-Jackson says that the launch of GPM, planned for early 2014, will be very rewarding. “GPM has been in concept since the early 2000s. I’m ready to see it be successful on its own and provide data from space.”

One of Skofronick-Jackson’s techniques for staying on the path to success is setting and re-evaluating goals. She is trying to map out the next 6-12 months of accomplishment goals in terms of her research, and she strives to publish at least one scientific paper every year.

Skofronick-Jackson also stresses the importance of taking time out for oneself.

“I’m a jogger. Three weeks ago, I ran my first half marathon in 19 years. I find the time at nights or in the mornings or on weekends to train. It’s really healthy for me to be able to take that time and say, ‘this is for me.’”

As a scientist, Skofronick-Jackson prides herself on her ability to look at the “big picture” of research or a project, especially with her role in GPM.  She cares about the organization and wants to ensure that the mission will be successful. However, Skofronick-Jackson also acknowledges the need for scientists who are willing to devote themselves to the detailed aspects of a project.

“When I first started here, I was way down in the details,” she said, “If you have a whole group of people looking at the scope of a project and nobody’s doing the detailed work, you have a problem.” She also mentioned the lack of incoming scientists as a challenge for the field. “There’s not enough of us. We need more people in this field that have the technological and scientific skills. It’s a very detailed field.”

To high school and undergraduate students who are interested in scientific careers, Skofronick-Jackson offers this advice: “Take the hardest math class you can pass. If you stop taking hard math classes, you really close yourself off to opportunities that you don’t know about.”