NCCS User Spotlight: Dr. Marshall Shepherd

To highlight one of NASA’s most renowned supercomputing users, we spoke with the
ground-breaking, prolific, and award-winning atmospheric scientist Dr. Marshall Shepherd.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor, Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program in the University of Georgia (UGA) Department of Geography, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. UGA Photo.

Hometown: I was born in Canton, Georgia, Cherokee County. Canton was a rural town back then, but it has become a north Atlanta suburb. I attended university and lived for several years in Tallahassee, Florida. After that, I lived in Maryland for roughly 12 years while I was working as a research scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Pine Log Mountain in Cherokee County, Georgia. Photo by Thomson200; acquired from Wikimedia Commons.

I currently live in Gwinnett County, to the east of Atlanta. Normally, I commute to Athens, where my position at UGA is located. However, due to restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic, I worked from home in early 2020, an experience which my wife and I wrote about. Lately, I have been doing a mix of virtual work at home and in-person work in my office at UGA’s Geography Department, but things have been somewhat normal here in Georgia for some time.

Career path: I designed my sixth grade science project on a weather question: “Can a sixth grader predict the weather?” For this project, I created weather instruments and tried to figure out the weather patterns for my hometown. From that point on, I knew that I wanted to be a research meteorologist. I was less interested in forecasting and more interested in the "hows" and "whys" of weather trends.

I spent most of my academic years studying at Florida State University (FSU), earning a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a doctorate in Atmospheric Science from the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science (EOAS).

Main entrance to FSU’s Dodd Hall, built in 1925 — the location of FSU’s library until 1956. Rendered in gold leaf is the phrase "The half of knowledge is to know where to find knowledge," translated from the Latin motto “Dimidium scientiae cui scit ubi sit scientia.” Photo by James Roberts; acquired from Wikimedia Commons.

My graduate advisor at FSU knew that I hoped to work for NASA one day. He reached out to the legendary Dr. Franco Einaudi, who was working at that time as the Chief of the Laboratory for Atmospheres at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Dr. Einaudi hired me in the mid-1990s and became my mentor. I spent 12 years as a Research Meteorologist at NASA Goddard, where I began developing my own research topics in urban hydroclimate processes and extreme hydrometeorological events. At Goddard, I served as Deputy Project Scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission (GPM), an international network of satellites that launched in 2014.

In 2005, an opportunity presented itself at the flagship university, UGA, in my home state of Georgia. I was offered a unique opportunity to help grow the university’s emerging atmospheric sciences program and move closer to family. I joined the faculty in 2006. I now serve as UGA’s Atmospheric Sciences Program Director in the Department of Geography, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

The Geography and Geology building at UGA. Image acquired from Google Maps.

data scientist, Deputy Manager.

What are your current roles/interactions with NASA? I recently chaired the NASA Earth Science Advisory Committee at NASA Headquarters. In terms of research, I’m now completing a NASA-funded project under the Modeling, Analysis, and Prediction (MAP) Program looking at modeling inland tropical cyclones. I’m also the Principal Investigator on a NASA interdisciplinary grant exploring the predictability of urban hydrometeorological processes. One of my recent doctoral students, Dr. Andrew Thomas, also serves on an end-user committee for NASA. He was invited by a former doctoral student of mine, data scientist Dr. Binita KC, the Deputy Manager of the Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC).

I also have a long history of funding from the NASA Precipitation Measurement Missions (PMM) science program, which has collected rain and snowfall data from space for nearly 20 years. In 2019, scientists were — for the first time — able to access PMM’s entire record as one dataset.

What is the focus of your current research project that uses NCCS compute/resources? In our NASA-funded project, The Impact of Soil and Surface Moisture on Tropical Cyclone Reintensification Over Land, we have provided a new understanding of the role of land surface processes on landfalling and inland tropical cyclones. We have already published papers detailing the warm-core nature of an inland tropical cyclone and the relative roles of soil vs. atmospheric moisture.

We have also collaborated on work investigating the “Brown Ocean Effect,” a concept advanced by NASA-funded work in our group and its role with Tropical Storm Bill (Brauer et al., 2020). Our collaboration with NASA Goddard has also yielded new understanding and capabilities with the NASA Unified Weather Research and Forecasting (NU-WRF) model, particularly as it relates to land surface processes and certain parameterizations. NASA's modeling capacity will be better because of this project.

People who have influenced me: As the child of a single mother, clearly she was a strong influence. My mother showed me the value of education and work ethic early on. Next, my sixth grade science teacher, Mrs. Nash, first introduced me to the principles of the scientific method. My high school physics teacher, Larry Brown, and various professors at FSU including my advisor were also influential.

Dr. Warren M. Washington is one of my most important professional mentors. Dr. Washington laid the foundation for how I approach many aspects of my career and has provided sage advice over the years. I mentioned Dr. Franco Einaudi earlier. Dr. Einaudi was a very strong advocate for me, and for that I am grateful.

Left: Dr. Warren M. Washington, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Oregon State University; acquired from Wikimedia Commons. Right: Dr. Franco Einaudi, former American Meteorological Society (AMS) President and Director of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Earth Sciences Division. NASA photo.

Last, but certainly not least, my wife Ayana influences me. She is the foundation of our family: an accomplished professional who applies her skills and knowledge in corporate America, our family, and our community. My success professionally is our success because Ayana and I are truly partners, and this is a team effort.

Inspiration: In life, my family inspires me. My wife and children motivate everything I do. I am also grateful for the support from my mother, mother-in-law, extended family, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers, and a close circle of friends, including electrical engineer David Raphael, Goddard’s Flight Data Systems and Radiation Effects Branch Head, who served as best man in my wedding. We are godfathers for our respective daughters.

David Raphael, M.S., NASA Goddard Flight Data Systems and Radiation Effects Branch Head, against the backdrop of the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, for which he was a product development lead (PDL). NASA photo and visualization.

Professionally, I am inspired by a boyish curiosity for weather as well as the stark reality that we have no “Plan B” planet. I am also on a mission to redefine what a scientist is and looks like. We must engage within the traditional ivory tower but also engage more broadly and with impact. I see myself as an “end-to-end” scientist, and we need more of us, going forward.

Challenges: As an African American in a field that is predominantly European American, I've heard whispers and innuendo about “how I got a seat at the table” and whether I belonged. While stuff like that never held me back, at times it added a few chips to my shoulder. Further, just being African American in the United States has been a challenge. I have been called names (yes, that one). I have been pulled over while driving and told that I “matched the description of car thieves in the area.” While standing in the hotel lobby with other American Meteorological Society (AMS) colleagues, I have been asked if I was the airport shuttle driver. These are realities that transcend trivial challenges such as dealing with a climate denial troll on Twitter. However, I am still standing, unscathed.

Is there anything else that you would like to mention? NASA holds a special place for me. In my valedictory address at Cherokee High School over 30 years ago, I said that working at NASA was a dream career for me, and I made that dream a reality. I am grateful for NASA and will always do my best to support the agency.

[Editor’s note: There is simply not enough space in this brief spotlight to detail the innumerable accomplishments, research projects, awards, and achievements of the internationally known climate science expert Dr. Marshall Shepherd. I recommend that curious readers click the links embedded in the story and below to learn more about this distinguished scholar, science advisor, and educator.]

Related Links

Sean Keefe, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center