Claire Parkinson: A Scientist Who Goes Beyond

Claire Parkinson, project scientist for the Aqua satellite and a senior climate scientist at NASA, uses her work to improve scientific and public understanding of the world.

Claire Parkinson giving a talk about the women of Goddard Space Flight Center in 2011. Image Credit: Women@NASA.

Claire Parkinson giving a talk about the women of Goddard Space Flight Center in 2011. Image Credit: Steve Graham<.

In becoming the Aqua satellite project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Claire Parkinson knew she would have to severely cut back on her climate research.

At the time, she had already developed a sea ice model and used pioneering satellite microwave radiation data to map sea ice distributions and even show the beginning of a downward trend in the extent of the Arctic ice, which we now accept as given fact; choosing to focus entirely on research would have yielded her more papers and possibly more prestige. Parkinson, committed to using her scientific background to better others’ lives, made the choice to reduce time spent on her own research to work on the Aqua satellite mission.

Aqua is a satellite orbiting the Earth that observes the planet’s water and many other features of the Earth system. In doing so, the orbiter gathers data on hydrological processes, taking measurements of precipitation, sea and land ice, and clouds, among other things. Non-hydrologic processes observed include carbon dioxide concentration in the air, vegetation cover, and aerosols. The data are relayed from the satellite to polar ground stations and from there to NASA Goddard and then on to data centers around the country.

“When you look at Claire Parkinson, you have a perfect example of an outstanding scientist who goes beyond just being a scientist,” said Dr. Franco Einaudi. As former director of Earth Sciences at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Einaudi knows a lot of scientists.

“Many scientists just want to promote their number of refereed papers,” he said. “But Claire Parkinson is no longer just a scientist. In the atmospheric sciences, where there are a lot of very important scientific issues, she has the ability to work beyond the lab and do so much outreach.”

As a climate change senior scientist at NASA and Aqua project scientist, Parkinson proved herself outstanding inside the lab as well. She has managed to consistently produce independent research while working with the Aqua project – a satellite that Einaudi calls “one of the most successful missions ever” – and belongs to prestigious professional organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.

Back in 1970, before she’d joined any of these organizations or figured out a career, Parkinson knew she needed to use her mathematics degree for a greater purpose. As a soon-to-be graduate at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, she saw pure mathematics as an inherently insular path and therefore one that would be uncomfortable for her to follow in the midst of social crises like the Vietnam War and the American civil rights movement.

“Much that was going on around the world was very troubling,” she said. “I couldn’t just stay in my ivory tower world doing math, even though I really liked it.”

Parkinson wanted to do something of value that would not be connected with any war effort, so she looked to the one place on the planet where no international strife was allowed: Antarctica.

When 12 major nations signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 (41 additional nations have since signed), they promised to leave the continent as neutral territory free for scientific exploration. Looking at this model of international cooperation, Parkinson asked herself: “How can I get to Antarctica?”

In search of an answer, she took to the library and discovered the Institute of Polar Studies at Ohio State University (now the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center). Although she’d never planned on pursuing a career in academia, she enrolled as a graduate student so she could join an expedition to Antarctica. In the aftermath, she became one of the first female scientists to visit the continent.

At the time that Parkinson first went to Ohio State, she wasn’t aware that few women had ever been to Antarctica. A female participating in an experiment on-location with males was essentially unheard of.

This was so unusual in the early 1970s that the captain of the ship that brought her team to Antarctica was “horrified” when he learned there was to be a woman onboard, Parkinson said. Fortunately, the leader of the expedition, Terry Hughes, stood up for Parkinson. “Terry understood that going to Antarctica was the whole reason I wanted to be at the Institute of Polar Studies, so he included me on the expedition,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson standing next to a ridge of ice in the central Arctic, on a NASA expedition to the North Pole, April 1999. Image Credit: Elizabeth Arnold

Parkinson standing next to a ridge of ice in the central Arctic, on a NASA expedition to the North Pole, April 1999. Image Credit: Elizabeth Arnold

After returning from Antarctica, Claire wanted to continue to study the Antarctic but to use more math. She wasn’t sure how until she heard about climate modeling when a scientist from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.

As Parkinson remembers it, she was “incredibly shy at the time.” The talk on climate modeling was so interesting, however, that she put aside her shyness and approached the speaker. In doing so, she took an important step toward her lifelong career as a climate scientist. The speaker, Warren Washington, gave her the opportunity to spend time at NCAR, which is where she then did much of the work for her doctorate dissertation, “A Numerical Simulation of the Annual Cycle of Sea Ice in the Arctic and Antarctic.” Shortly before completing the dissertation, she presented the work at a Seattle conference about sea ice, and there a NASA scientist approached her and encouraged her to apply to work at NASA. She was amazed and thrilled with the suggestion.

Parkinson moved to NASA in 1978, and shifted her work from concentrating on modeling to concentrating on satellite data. At the time, acquiring sea ice information from satellites was a new and evolving field and, as the NASA team soon learned, a highly rewarding one.

Previous data collection had relied mostly on visible imagery, which works great for studies of clouds; but for scientists studying sea ice it works well only for images taken during cloudless daylight hours. Parkinson and her team instead used microwave data, which allowed them to use data taken at night and during cloudy conditions. This changed the entire field of sea ice surveillance, because having a record irrespective of cloudiness or time of day provided a consistent database for analysis.

Analyzing the data still turned out to be challenging. Looking at sea ice meant observing an area with high natural variability and interannual cycles, a complicating factor in scientists’ search for trends over time.

However, once they accumulated a large enough set of data, Claire’s team was able to establish that Arctic sea ice cover has diminished quite a bit since the 1970s. In fact, the Arctic is one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth.

Parkinson’s models of Arctic (top) and Antarctic (bottom) sea ice extents in 1979 and 2013. Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

Satellite images of summer (top) and winter (bottom) Antarctic sea ice distributions in 1979 and 2013. Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

The Antarctic, on the other hand, is gaining ice. This raises additional questions, but Parkinson sees those as an exciting challenge rather than a discouraging complication.


“Why has it been increasing?” she asked. “Lots of researchers are getting involved, which is good. No model ever works perfectly, so we’re always looking for improved understandings to guide the way for adjustments that will improve the models.”

The mystery of Antarctic ice growth has inspired new scientific work on the region. This and the large interest generated by the decrease in Arctic sea ice has contributed to vastly increasing the number of scientists doing research on sea ice with satellite data, creating a far cry from the days when the team Parkinson was on at Goddard constituted a substantial fraction of satellite-based sea ice research in the entire world. Now, the chilly field is what she calls a “hot topic.”

“It’s a very different environment now, in terms of the work,” she explained.

The social environment Parkinson works within has also changed significantly since she began working in the sciences in the late 1970s, and even since she became project scientist for the Aqua satellite in 1993. At the beginning of her career, Parkinson remembered, she was “almost always the only female in the room whenever we were having a scientific discussion.”

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are shifting toward gender parity – but doing so slowly. Men still outnumber women significantly in areas like computer science, engineering, and geosciences — fields that are heavily represented at NASA.

In order to reassure women that this imbalance wouldn’t work against them and highlight important women at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where she works, Parkinson headed up a “Women of Goddard” initiative in conjunction with the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center and former astronaut Mary Cleave. Claire recruited others at Goddard, and together they created a book highlighting the careers and life stories of a wide variety of Women of Goddard, from interns to senior scientists and engineers.

At the start of the project, Parkinson wasn’t sure that the call for self-submissions would get any traction. “We had to have enough to fill a book, or else the project would fail,” she said.

To her surprise and delight, the project received 103 submissions, all of which were included (with editing) in the 2011 booklet. This booklet, with one page for each of 103 women who work in STEM fields at Goddard, quickly became highly popular, opening the eyes of many girls and young women to possibilities available to them.

“It would be much harder to do this project today,” Parkinson said. “If we put out a call for submissions we might get 1,000 entries or more.”

Parkinson believes that a big part of involving more women in the sciences is a matter of teaching girls to find enthusiasm and pursue it. She thinks all young girls (and boys) should learn math, but also encourages them to find something they’re passionate about and if it is a field of science then not to get discouraged if another field of science doesn’t suit them.

“It can be so exciting to try to understand more about the universe and whatever aspect you’re interested in,” Parkinson said. “What’s really important for young people is to find something they are passionate about and then try to learn more about it, both by learning what has already been accomplished and by doing their own studies.”


Although she feels that more needs to be done to include scientists of color, and of all genders, Parkinson is heartened by NASA’s move toward gender parity. Women in the scientists no longer have to second-guess themselves, because finding strength in numbers means they don’t need to “constantly be adjusting to the male way of doing things,” she said. “It’s much, much better.”

Throughout all her work, Parkinson has tried her best not only to learn but also to help others. She now splits her time between the Aqua project and her research on sea ice, and happily sacrifices time from the latter in order to do work on the Aqua project that she considers “definitely of value to humanity.”

Parkinson receiving the William Nordberg award for advancing the scientific understanding of polar sea ice. Image Credit: Debra McCallum, NASA Goddard.

Parkinson receiving the William Nordberg award for advancing the scientific understanding of polar sea ice. Image Credit: Debra McCallum, NASA Goddard

When Parkinson cut down on her valuable research time to become Aqua project scientist, her contributions did not go unnoticed.


“For the first time, we had a huge number of observations: sea level, ice melt and so on,” said Einaudi. “The Aqua project took a lot of Claire’s time, and because of her time and work we acquired knowledge about how the atmosphere works that we hadn’t had before.”

In the 1970s, when she first began her career, tracking natural patterns via satellites was a limited and underdeveloped field. Now, Parkinson and hundreds of others are able to examine Earth’s interrelated processes using satellites. The Earth observation systems she uses have developed and improved alongside the field itself, and she integrates new technologies into her existing database to maintain a consistent and useful set of data about the planet.

Parkinson says the data that Aqua collects is making a difference, and not just in research. For instance, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) that Aqua carries is readily able to detect fires. The U.S. Forest Service uses these data to identify and attack forest fires, which Parkinson considers one of the most direct ways she and the Aqua project are helping the world – far from the “ivory tower” of academic mathematics that she left behind.

Cassandra Seltzer is studying Earth and environmental sciences and history at University of Michigan. She spent her summer as an intern in the Planetary Geodynamics Lab at NASA Goddard.

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