Joanne Simpson's Meteoric Climb to the Top

by Lori Keesey

This fall when weathercasters fill the airwaves with news about a particularly horrific hurricane headed straight for the U.S. coastline, think about Dr. Joanne Simpson. The first woman in the world to earn a doctorate in meteorology has devoted her entire professional life to studying clouds and violent storms, and at 75, she's still at it.
From her office at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, filled with family photos and mementos of her half century-long career, she studies satellite data to learn more about hurricanes, typhoons and El-Niño-related weather patterns that some scientists believe have caused everything from the early onset of allergies in the spring to the increased population of mosquitoes this summer.
Her main mission is not to improve weather forecasts, but to understand the role played by tropical rain clouds in global climate change...a pretty hefty order for a woman who was told by university faculty in 1944 that her ambition to become a meteorologist was a waste of time.
"I'll never forget it," she says, relaxing in her office after showing a visitor recent NASA satellite imagery of a monster typhoon that struck several Pacific nations last year. "As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I had taken a meteorology course, with the idea that I would then train young Air Force personnel the basics of weather forecasting. Everyone thought it was great until after the war when I decided to pursue further studies. The fact was, when the war was over and the men came home and were demobilized, it was generally expected of women that they go back like "Rosie the Riveter" to their mops and babies."
That didn't sit well with Simpson, whose interest in clouds and weather was a natural offshoot of her other passions---sailing and flying small aircraft. Her own mother, a trained journalist, was forced to give up her career after she married and had children. "Although she later worked on helping the birth control movement, she was never able to earn enough money to support herself," Simpson says. "She then endured 21 years of an unhappy marriage. This made up my mind, as early as age 10, that I would equip myself to make my own living and enough to provide for possible children. That way, I wouldn't be economically dependent on anyone else."
Her resolve saw her through. Having completed a master's degree program in meteorology, she figured she would have a better chance of getting a self-supporting position by remaining in the field. Despite the initial shock, open derision and hostility among faculty members, she entered the University of Chicago's Ph.D. program then headed by Carl-Gustaf Rossby, now considered the greatest meteorologist of the 20th century.
He gave her a little piece of advice. "He told me that I would look both ridiculous and pathetic if I didn't really make it big after making such an unconventional spectacle of myself in my fight to become a meteorologist." Over the years, in testimony to her persistence and tenacity, Simpson has made good on her old mentor's advice. Although she had to initially "worm" her way into a paying job as a meteorologist after receiving her doctorate in 1949, she excelled at what would become her lifetime passion. Over her 50-year career, she has worked for some of the nation's leading meteorological research institutions and with the profession's shining stars, including Rossby himself. Despite the years of not being taken seriously by her male colleagues and being passed over for jobs simply because of her sex, she has reached a point where she no longer must prove her worth.
In 1983, the American Meteorological Society bestowed on her its highest honor "the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Award" and then named her president a few years later, a notable achievement given the fact that no other woman had ever won the job. NASA, too, has weighed in with many awards and commendations, including its coveted Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award.
No doubt, it wasn't an easy climb. In an article published in the New York Academy of Sciences Annals several years ago, she was quoted as saying "I am not convinced that either the position, rewards or achievements have been worth the cost. My personal and married life and child raising have surely suffered from the professional attainments I have achieved."
Today, that seems to be behind her. She says her three children have pursued professional careers and consider their mother a role model. And last year, long past the retirement age of many, she stepped down after 11 years as chief scientist on NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission to devote her time to studying the satellite's findings. For her, the mission ranks as among her greatest achievements.
"This mission will break a major bottleneck that has stopped progress in modeling and predicting weather and climate," she says. "The public will benefit immensely from improved forecasting of short-term climate variability. Where floods are predicted, protection can be set up in advance. Think what could have been done had the public been forewarned of the severity of rainstorms this past winter along the California coast?"
But because she has worked so hard, so passionately in her profession, she concedes that complete retirement probably won't happen. "My greatest wish would be to be like a scientist I knew who died of a heart attack while forecasting a hurricane; or like my early hero Rossby, who keeled over and died in the middle of giving a seminar. I don't like the idea of when I won't be a meteorologist any more. It's inconceivable to me."