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Ravishankara, A.R.
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/ Categories: Air Quality, Climate, Weather

Ravishankara, A.R.

Taking Chemistry to New Heights

A.R. Ravishankara is an atmospheric chemist and director of the Chemical Sciences Division at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL). His research aims to describe the chemical composition of our atmosphere and predict how it may change in the future.

Ravishankara, called “Ravi” by his colleagues, was lead author of a NOAA Research Outstanding Scientific Paper in 2010. His measurements in the laboratory and in the atmosphere have contributed to deciphering ozone layer depletion, including the ozone hole; to quantifying the role of chemically active species on climate; and to advancing understanding of the formation, removal, and properties of air pollutants. 

Why does your research matter?

My research is aimed toward providing information on societally relevant environmental issues of climate change, stratospheric ozone layer depletion, air quality, and their interdependencies. Therefore, I feel that it matters to people. Not only do we want to identify environmental issues (often called “problems!”), but also solutions for such problems.

What do you enjoy the most about your research?

There are many things about research that I enjoy. One of the most thrilling moments is a discovery when I know some thing others do not! The other enjoyable aspect research is how things fall in to place when logical steps lead from one thing to another and the picture becomes very clear -- makes you wonder why you did not see it before!

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?

I started my research in the lab. Over the years, I also extended it to field studies and analyses.

What in your lab could you not live without?

The stimulating interchanges with people. For the chemist in me, it has to be good analytical techniques (in the broadest sense).

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

A completely tunable (high energy, narrow line width) laser that covers the entire spectrum from infra-red to short-ultraviolet! Such a laser would allow us to investigate chemistry in great detail, detect all sorts of things in the atmosphere, and get an excellent picture of the chemistry in the atmosphere.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

"One of the most thrilling moments is a discovery when I know some thing others do not!"

Probably when I was about 14, or so. To me, engineering and science were inseparable when I was young. I went in to science as an undergraduate and majored in physics and chemistry. I did switch fields many times -- from physics, to radiation chemistry, to inorganic chemistry, to physical chemistry. It was a gradual process to becoming an atmospheric chemist.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

Atoms in the Family by Laura Fermi; Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland by George Gamow; Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard Feynman.

And how about a personal favorite book?

Without a question: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

What I am doing now most of the time: administration - as a director of a division of ESRL!

Do you have an outside hobby?

Riding a bicycle where I can be “alone” in my own inner thoughts but outside in the “environment.”  It is also a way to test my endurance, mostly mental, really!

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

What I wanted to be is different than what I would have likely become…. I would have likely become an engineer. I wish I had become an artisan of some kind.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

I have a few “favorites!” Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist, is probably on the top. He was an amazing character with an amazing clarity of thinking. Enrico Fermi for his ability to switch from being an experimentalist to a theoretician. S.N. Bose (an Indian physicist not to be confused with the audio equipment person) for his ability to think of things far out and out of context. Marie Curie for her perseverance.

Prior to joining ESRL, Ravi was a principal research scientist and head of the Molecular Sciences Branch at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia Tech Research Institute and a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Maryland. He earned his doctorate in 1975 in physical chemistry from the University of Florida. His masters and bachelor’s degrees were earned at the University of Mysore in Karnataka, India.

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