4.3 Clouds, Hurricanes, and the Tropical Atmosphere: What We Are Learning about the Life and Work of Joanne Gerould/Starr/Malkus/Simpson

Monday, 8 January 2018: 4:00 PM
Room 2 (ACC) (Austin, Texas)
James Rodger Fleming, Colby College, Waterville, ME

Joanne Gerould was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was an astute student, but had a horrible emotional start in life. At age 17 she chose to attend the University of Chicago in 1940 where she took courses in astronomy, history, physics, politics, and psychology. In the spring of her second year, after a meeting with Carl Rossby, she joined the war effort and taught aviation cadets at NYU and Chicago in a science she was just learning.

Joanne Starr, age 21 (married to Victor) pursued her master’s degree at Chicago while raising her first son as a single mother and teaching physics and meteorology at Illinois Institute of Technology. Her experience in Herb Riehl’s tropical meteorology course provided a Eureka moment and convinced her to pursue a Ph.D. in this field.

Joanne Malkus, age 25 (married to Willem) spent summers at Woods Hole where she worked with observational data and developed a mathematical theory of entrainment in response to wind shear that demonstrated the asymmetrical interactions of clouds with their environment. Her work on tropical convection marked the beginning of her own original thinking about cumulus clouds and their relationships to the air in which they are embedded. In 1949, overcoming severe discrimination involving women in science, she became the first US female to obtain a Ph.D. in meteorology. Riehl and Malkus developed the "hot tower" hypothesis and the role cumulus clouds play in hurricanes and in the structure and maintenance of the trade winds. Joanne was a pioneer in cloud modeling and developed the first cumulus model on Sweden’s BESK computer in the mid-1950s. She led observational field programs out of Woods Hole and worked in close association with photographer (and romantic interest) Claude Ronne to study cloud mergers and interactions. In 1961 she and Willem moved to UCLA as full professors, but neither the appointments nor the marriage survived the transition.

Joanne Simpson, age 41 (married to Bob) joined what would become NOAA where she headed the Experimental Meteorology Laboratory and flew missions to intervene in clouds and hurricanes through Project Stormfury and the Florida Area Cumulus Experiment. She moved to the University of Virginia in 1974, but found the climate for women professors there oppressive. Directing her energies elsewhere, she participated in instrumented flights for GATE, MONEX and TOGA/COARE. In 1979 she made her last career move, joining the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as head of its Severe Storms Branch and Project Scientist for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) from 1986 to its successful launch in December 1997. She was Chief Scientist for Meteorology there until her retirement in 2005.

Joanne Simpson found personal happiness and received numerous honors later in life. NASA was actively recruiting and promoting women scientists, providing a unique work atmosphere that did not isolate women from their male colleagues; interdisciplinary cooperation was encouraged; and abundant new data was streaming in from TRMM. Joanne’s third marriage, to Bob, was a happy one, and her personal contentment with her extended family and grandchildren paralleled her professional success. Joanne won the NASA Award for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, the AMS Rossby Research Medal, and the prestigious International Meteorological Organization Prize, the first woman to do so. She also served as the President of the American Meteorological Society in 1989, the first woman to do so. She stayed at NASA for as long as she was physically able, spending the last few years zooming around in a motorized wheelchair and inspiring her younger colleagues with her seemingly endless energy and ideas.

Joanne studied meteorology at a time, using her words, "when the field has gone from the horse and buggy era to the space age.” Starting from the little that was known about the tropical atmosphere in 1945, Joanne invested her energies into new data, new experiments, and new models — and the interaction of all three modes of inquiry — to develop innovative and robust new understandings of tropical cloud, storm, and global dynamics. She used surface observations, upper-air data, radar, aircraft reconnaissance, and satellite remote sensing, combined with a consistent commitment to predictive models, to bring tropical meteorology into the twenty-first century.

From her formative experiences as a sad, strong, and often rebellious child to her adolescent determination that, “I’m going to get somewhere and be somebody,” Joanne’s life involved a quest to find love and happiness (which she eventually did), recognition (which she certainly did), and to leave a legacy through mentorship and expanding horizons for women in meteorology (which we are thankful she did).

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