NCCS User Spotlight: Lesley Ott

As part of NASA’s Earth Day celebration, this spotlight shines on Lesley Ott — from her growing up in the Washington, DC suburbs with a mother who taught math and science to her challenging work today as a research meteorologist in NASA Goddard’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office (GMAO).

Lesley Ott

Hometown: Darnestown, Maryland

Career path: I stayed local and studied meteorology at the University of Maryland in College Park. My PhD research focused on the way that thunderstorms influence atmospheric chemistry. When I started looking for postdoctoral research opportunities, my advisor connected me with some colleagues at NASA. I had never worked with satellite data or global datasets before, so I viewed this as a great opportunity to try something new and broaden my horizons. I started as a postdoctoral fellow in 2006 and never left.

Current role: I work in an office that develops global models of the planet. Basically, that means continually refining equations and computer programs that can simulate how the various components of the Earth system — atmosphere, oceans, land, and ice — interact and change over time. My work focuses on using these models along with satellite observations to better understand the processes that control concentrations of greenhouse gases.

NCCS support of research: The NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) has been a critical part of my research from the day I started at NASA. Making progress in Earth science requires us to understand the models and satellite data, but increasingly we also need expertise in managing very large datasets, developing flexible and efficient software infrastructure, and finding ways to connect data with a diverse group of users.

NCCS provides the computing platform for us to run our models and analyze our data, but also gives us the unique opportunity to work with experts who can help us do our jobs more efficiently and to pioneer new types of research. For example, these collaborations with NCCS have helped us produce some of the highest-resolution global simulations of carbon dioxide ever, which we use to plan future satellite missions.

Inspiration: First is the resilience of the planet as illustrated by the carbon cycle. Every year, the world’s ocean and vegetation absorb about half of human carbon dioxide emissions. The natural world provides a critical climate mitigation, slowing the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature rise. It’s absolutely incredible — and since 2015 we’ve been able to see this in a new way with NASA satellites like the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2).

Second is my colleagues who have tremendous energy and ideas and are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They make me feel lucky to go to work every day.

Lesley Ott presents on the U.S. delegation’s hyperwall at the COP22 meeting in Marrakech, Morocco. Photo by Mark Malanoski, NASA Goddard.

Women who have influenced me: My mom studied physics and went on to teach high school math and science. While I’ve had great teachers over the years, she was the single greatest influence on how I approach problems, think through complex ideas, and work to engage with colleagues.

Challenges: One challenging part of my work now is that you need to know different aspects of many fields — meteorology, oceanography, ecology, atmospheric chemistry, math, computer science, communications, and (even occasionally) accounting. It’s impossible for one person to do it all, even if you try really hard. I’ve had to get less shy and learn how to ask people for help over the years, but that didn’t always come naturally to me.

How the science and technology sector can better encourage and support women: I think there are a lot of things, some of which we’re working hard on right now. We need to make sure that young women see this as a career path that welcomes them, which means trying to engage in our communities to talk about our work and experiences. We need to make sure that women throughout their careers have a support system if something isn’t working, which means making sure that we have a strong network of advocates and women at different stages in their careers to serve as mentors. We also need to make sure that science careers come with flexible, family-friendly work policies. This is tough for both women and men who are often starting families and demanding science careers at the same time. There’s progress on this front at many universities and across the federal government but still lots more work to do.

Editor’s note: Learn more from Lesley Ott by grabbing a front row seat at NASA’s Earth Day Virtual Event (registration required). Just follow the path Theater > Science at Work > NASA Models the Complex Chemistry of Earth's Atmosphere.

Jarrett Cohen, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center