She’s an Authority on Earth’s Past. Now, Her Focus Is the Planet’s Future.

Jul 10, 2020 by

The New York Times

The climate scientist Maureen Raymo is leading the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia. She has big plans for science, and diversity, too.


Maureen Raymo, who took over as head of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory this month, with a core sample she studied as a student. 
Credit…Melissa Bunni Elian for The New York Times

PALISADES, N.Y. — Columbia University is taking new steps to make climate change, which has been studied there for decades, an even more prominent part of the school’s mission. And Maureen Raymo is a big part of that.

On July 1, Dr. Raymo, one of the world’s leading oceanographers and climate scientists, became interim director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Founded in 1949 and perched on hills overlooking the Hudson River 18 miles north of Manhattan, the observatory has been one of the world’s leading centers of scientific exploration into earth sciences and climate change. It was a Lamont researcher, Wallace Broecker, who brought the term “global warming” to public attention in a landmark 1975 paper.

So, Dr. Raymo is taking over the institution at crucial time. She is the first woman scientist, and the first climate scientist, to head Lamont. On Friday, Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, announced plans to create the Columbia Climate School, a cross-disciplinary institution; Lamont is a prominent part of that initiative.

And while there are more women represented at Lamont today than when Dr. Raymo was a graduate student there in the 1980s, she comes to her leadership position at a time when addressing other issues of diversity and equity in the field, and within the institution, is overdue.

Having experienced discrimination in her own career, she said an important way to address it is to “get into a position where you can change things.” She has dedicated fans among Lamont students, who value not just her scientific prowess but also her attention to social justice issues.

Clara Chang was a pre-med student who was thinking of switching to a major in geosciences when she first encountered Dr. Raymo. Ms. Chang tested the waters with a class on paleoceanography, the study of the world’s oceans across eons. The first week, Dr. Raymo unrolled an enormous scroll: A copy of the first detailed map of the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, delicately drawn and hand lettered in tiny, precise script.

Dr. Raymo explained that a cartographer named Marie Tharp from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory had drawn it, in collaboration with her geologist colleague Bruce Heezen. But while Dr. Heezen got to go to sea to conduct the sonar soundings for the map, Ms. Tharp was deskbound. Ms. Chang recalled being stunned. “Can you imagine this? This is one woman who wasn’t allowed to go out to sea — she made these gorgeous maps of the ocean floor.” That moment, and the exposure to the dynamic Dr. Raymo, changed the course of Ms. Chang’s career; she now is a graduate student at Lamont-Doherty.

Dots mark locations where Lamont-Doherty researchers have collected  deep-sea cores.
Credit…Melissa Bunni Elian for The New York Times

While Dr. Raymo is moving into the director’s office, at the moment much of the science is paused. Lamont, an institution largely based on far-flung research, has to abide by widespread travel bans because of the novel coronavirus. The observatory has been shut down since March, with just skeleton staff maintaining delicate equipment. As things reopen, they are doing triage; postdoctoral students on a one-year appointment don’t have much time left to make a mark, she said. “If they can’t get back into the lab, their year is ticking away.” So researchers with urgent needs will get in early, while someone who can run computer models from home may wait.

In an interview, Dr. Raymo said she felt fortunate that she was able to go last year to Antarctica on a research vessel and take enough sediment cores to supply half of her team with five years of research. The other half of her team, however, is not so lucky: a trip to the Bahamas in May was canceled.

She arranged for us to meet at the nearly deserted campus, giving a tour of the 157-acre facility before we took our properly distanced positions on a bench in the beautifully maintained rose garden. As we discussed how she came to arrive at this moment, a bullfrog croaked in the garden’s burbling fountain.

She is living out childhood dreams, she said. “I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be an oceanographer.” She saw Jacques Cousteau’s undersea documentary, “The Silent World,” when she was 6.

A comic Dr. Raymo’s father created to honor her interest in studying the ocean.
Credit…Melissa Bunni Elian for The New York Times

Her father, Chet Raymo, an author and retired professor of physics, once drew comic books for his three young children. Her younger sister got a tale describing imaginary adventures in the London Zoo. Her brother, who loved Tintin, got a book of their imagined exploits together. And there was “Maureen’s adventures under the sea,” with Jacques Cousteau, of course, and a terrifying octopus whose giant eye she spies at a porthole.

She attended Brown University and studied geology. As she graduated, “I just said, where’s the best place in the world to study climate change in the past?” Friends guided her to Lamont Doherty, where she got job as a technician during a gap year, and then became a graduate student, getting her Ph.D. in 1989.

The observatory’s core repository has tens of thousands of sediment samples from around the world.
Credit…Melissa Bunni Elian for The New York Times

Her time at Lamont was formative, she said. She took in the institution’s interdisciplinary ethos and its tendency to use hard science to ask big, sweeping questions. “I think of the Earth as a giant puzzle,” she said, “and I’m a real puzzler.”

But she and her peer group of women graduate students were also learning about sexism in the field, building a sense of camaraderie in a place that was not particularly welcoming. “There was bullying,” she said. “I’ve been treated like a secretary by older scientists on more occasions than I would care to remember.” Even so, these were not the Marie Tharp days, either; the women Dr. Raymo came up with could go to sea.

CLIMATE FWD: What on earth is going on? Get the latest news about climate change, plus tips on how you can help.

From Lamont, she followed the itinerant life of an academic scientist, with appointments at institutions including the University of California, Berkeley, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1999, MIT failed to grant her tenure, despite her accomplishments and having papers in premier journals like Science and Nature. A department head had belittled her there, saying, “I would caution you against thinking you’re smarter than you really are.”

It was a low point, she said, and she considered leaving academia behind and going into real estate. Instead, she took a part-time position at Boston University and continued her research, producing some of her best known work. “I always joked with myself that I was too stupid or too stubborn to leave the field,” she says today; she told herself, “I’m just not going to let the system beat me.”

She returned to Lamont in 2011 as director of the institution’s Core Repository, where tens of thousands of sediment samples from around the world are stored, a record of history drawn from the earth itself. In 2014, she was the first woman to receive the Wollaston Medal, the Geological Society of London’s highest accolade; previous recipients of the medal were Charles Darwin and Louis Agassiz.

Her scientific work has established Dr. Raymo — Mo, to friends and colleagues — as one of the most influential earth scientists of her generation, with many and varied areas of research that include the great cycles of planetary heating and cooling. “She goes after the big issues,” said James Scourse, a professor of geography at the University of Exeter in England.

In 1989 she wrote a now-famous paper with William Ruddiman and Philip Froelich suggesting that the geological uplift that created the Tibetan Plateau more than 40 million years ago exposed vast amounts of minerals, setting off reactions that caused carbon dioxide to be absorbed out of the atmosphere. The result: the reduction in carbon dioxide was like turning the temperature knob on an air-conditioner, and the planet cooled. Of course, the paper also sheds light on how the carbon dioxide produced by human activity since the beginning of the industrial age has cranked the knob in the other direction, increasing global temperatures.

More recently, she has tried to establish the height of sea levels some 3 million years ago, the last time that the concentration of carbon dioxide was at 350 parts per million, similar to what human activity has produced today. That research has sent her and her colleagues around the world, finding evidence of beaches and fossil coral reefs at inland sites dozens of feet above current sea levels. This “Pliomax” program, a name shortened from Pliocene-era maximum sea level, shows how evidence of past climate can help predict future events — and risks. “Right now, the things that are going on are determining what shorelines are going to look like 50 to 100 years from now,” she said.

As she told a New York Times reporter on a trip to South Africa, “I wish I could take people that question the significance of sea level rise out in the field with me,” she said, “Because you just walk them up 30 or 40 feet in elevation above today’s sea level and show them a fossil beach, with shells the size of a fist eroding out, and they can look at it with their own eyes and say, ‘Wow, you didn’t just make that up.’”

“I think of the Earth as a giant puzzle,” Dr. Raymo  said, “and I’m a real puzzler.”
Credit…Melissa Bunni Elian for The New York Times

The next challenge for Dr. Raymo is as much about society as science: promoting diversity and equity in a field that has little of either. While women have made great strides, people of color are still a tiny part of the fields of ocean, atmosphere and earth sciences: In 2016, 85 percent of all geoscience Ph.D.s went to whites, a percentage remarkably consistent over the past 40 years. At Columbia between 2015 and 2019, 88 percent of the department of earth and environmental science faculty members science were white, and 69 percent of them women. A bit more than half of the program’s graduate students are male and 64 percent are white. There are currently no Black members of the faculty.

Even before becoming interim director, Dr. Raymo has supported students eager to promote diversity and inclusion in the sciences. Kailani Acosta, a graduate student who has worked to create a “Race Talk” reading group at Lamont and to bring in a more racially diverse group of speakers for the institution’s frequent seminars, said she was “super excited” to see Dr. Raymo taking a leadership post.

“She has been one of the few people to ask proactively what can be done” within the instruction “to change the foundation of what we do, and how we do it.” After a Black History Month presentation, she recalled, Dr. Raymo “went out of her way to shake our hands and say ‘this is important’ — which usually doesn’t happen with a lot of diversity work.”

Dr. Raymo said, “the students and postdocs are leading on our campus right now.” As a woman in science for 40 years, Dr. Raymo said: “I get it. I understand being angry like this.” And as she begins this new phase of her career, she said, “I think I’m going to spend the next months doing a lot of listening — and I’m very happy to do that.”

Ms. Chang, the graduate student who shifted her career after encountering Dr. Raymo, spent three years working for Lamont-Doherty before applying to be a graduate student there. Part of her job involved speaking with the armies of visiting students who would regularly troop through before the lockdown.

To inspire them, she said, she shows them Marie Tharp’s maps. But these days, she said, she also tells them “about Mo.”

John Schwartz is a reporter on the climate desk. In nearly two decades at The Times, he has also covered science, law and technology. @jswatz  Facebook

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