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Women in Science

Joanne Simpson, First Woman PhD in Meteorology

By Patrick Fitzpatrick, Mississippi State U.

Great pix of Simpson, early years: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Simpson/simpson2.ph

Joanne Simpson was the first woman meteorologist to earn a Ph.D., and made many contributions to cloud physics and hurricanes. The daughter of an editor of the Boston Herald who reported on aviation as a hobby, Simpson was fascinated by flying, and earned her student pilot’s license at 16. Since flying is weather-dependent, Simpson subsequently developed an interest in meteorology. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in meteorology in 1943 at the University of Chicago. She then taught meteorology to aviation cadets and military forecasters while she pursued her Master of Science degree, which she completed in 1945. Unable to obtain a fellowship for a Ph.D. in an era when women were strongly discouraged from such aspirations, Simpson became a physics and meteorology instructor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1947, Herbert Riehl lectured on aircraft observations of the wind flow and cloud structure in the tropics. Fascinated by this new field of tropical meteorology, she ended up completing her Ph.D. work in 1949 with Riehl as her adviser.

Riehl and Simpson wrote several landmark papers about hurricane structure, hurricane energetics, the thermodynamic structure of the tropics, and key concepts about the role of the tropical general circulation. From 1951 to 1960, Simpson became a Research Meteorologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to learn more about weather over the ocean. During this period, she constructed some of the first mathematical models of clouds, and flew into clouds to validate her computations. In 1954 she won a Guggenheim Fellowship to work in England, and in 1955 was an honorary lecturer at the Imperial College in London.

In 1962, Simpson wrote a chapter in the landmark book “The Sea, Volume I.” This book presented the most comprehensive treatment to date of the coupling between the ocean and the atmosphere. Simpson’s chapter dealt with the complexity of how large- and small-scale atmospheric features interact, and in particular how difficult it would be to explicitly compute the individual contributions of small-scale clouds and turbulence on large-scale weather patterns. This was a factor leading to the concept of parameterization, in which the net effect of non-measurable small-scale weather features is computed in terms of large-scale (measurable) weather variables.

After five major hurricanes made landfall on the eastern United States in 1954 and 1955, Congress established the National Hurricane Research Project and named her as an advisor. There she met the first director of the project, Robert Simpson, whom she married in 1965. From 1965 to 1979, she was director of NOAA’s Experimental Meteorology Laboratory in Coral Gables, FL, and participated in attempts to modify clouds and hurricanes using cloud-seeding techniques. In 1979 she went to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

As Head of the Severe Storm Branch; she remained at Goddard ever since. She served as the Project Scientist for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission from 1986 until launch in 1997 and became Chief Scientist for Meteorology. Simpson won numerous awards for her achievements, including the American Meteorological Society’s highest honor, the Carl-Gustav Rossby Research Medal.

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New (2009) book from the National Academy Press. Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty presents new and surprising findings about career differences between female and male full-time, tenure-track, and tenured faculty in science, engineering, and mathematics at the nation’s top research universities.
This is a link to a story about women chemists that was published in “Inside Higher Ed.”

The National Academy of Engineering published(?) abstracts of articles that discussed diversity issues for women and minorities in science and engineering. Most of the articles are from the 1990′s.

Animations about women in science aimed at a middle-school audience. The website is called: iwaswondering.org

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