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Ryerson, Tom
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Ryerson, Tom

On the Wing – and in the Lab – for NOAA Chemist Works to Clear Up Questions about Air Pollution

Tom Ryerson is a research chemist with the NOAA Chemical Sciences Division in Boulder, Colo. He has participated in field projects on research aircraft, including the NOAA WP-3Ds, since 1995. He has received two Department of Commerce Silver medals, a NOAA Bronze Medal, and four Outstanding Scientific Paper awards from NOAA for research on anthropogenic emissions and atmospheric ozone photochemistry.

Why does your research matter?

My research is focused on measuring the amounts and effects of chemicals emitted to the atmosphere. Done right, this kind of work allows society to make informed decisions about where to invest time and effort to control the emissions that degrade air quality and perturb the climate system. Always done with a large team, my research has helped achieve a better understanding of air quality effects of power plant location and size, has identified the contribution of petrochemical industrial emissions to ozone violations in Houston, Texas, and most recently has quantified the environmental fate and leak rate from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The first two studies led to different and more scientifically supported approaches to pollutant emissions controls on the national and state levels, respectively. It’s too early to tell how our Deepwater Horizon study will play out, but it should be useful in the ongoing environmental assessment process, as well as describing a new approach for evaluation of future spills. 
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
The chance of adding to the understanding of the environment and of our influence on it, coupled with the relevance of our work to modern society, is highly motivating for me and probably everyone else here in the NOAA Chemical Sciences Division. Listening to and working with colleagues here, it always feels like there is something important about to be discovered around the next corner. And the variety of things going on here just cannot be beat. 
Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
The data I look at are taken during field studies, which are infrequent but intense: about every two years, we install custom-built atmospheric chemical and aerosol sampling instruments into research aircraft, ships, and ground sites, for two months of twelve-hour days without a break.  Every day is really a Monday during these field studies. The other 22 months of this two-year cycle we spend analyzing, interpreting, and communicating the results from the last field study, and planning for the next one – and that gets us back to the lab and our offices for a much-needed break. 
What in your lab could you not live without?
Interactions with my colleagues are absolutely essential. My research is primarily the result of teamwork (my last paper has 30 coauthors), and being able to tap into the breadth of knowledge in our little community has made all the difference in my career as a scientist. There’s a great company in Brooklyn that I use for mirror-coating optical components, whose motto I’ll paraphrase here: working with my NOAA and academic colleagues makes me look smarter than we all know I really am. 
If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why? 
A great new measurement-of-everything could certainly help, but that solves only half the problem. The other half of the problem comes from misinterpreting good data because of imperfect analyses and unwarranted assumptions, and that’s a human failing – we would also need to improve our deductive reasoning to take full advantage of the next great measurement technique. Instead of a new piece of hardware, I think I’d ask for a healthy dose of critical thinking to be added to the municipal water supplies.
When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
My folks were both career U.S. Foreign Service officers, and the great game of diplomacy is necessary for many reasons – but too often, critical decisions affecting nations are based on the whims and moods of individuals, so that progress can be stymied or even reversed. In contrast, the idea in physical sciences that if you could manage to figure something out correctly once, it would stay figured out, was compelling. 
What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
Honestly, just read – cheap novels, weighty literature, cereal boxes, things you disagree with, things you agree with … read anything and everything. It will sharpen your ability to communicate, which is the last and most neglected step in training to be an effective scientist. My personal impression is that many great scientists, gifted with technical and mathematical skills I certainly don’t have, are hamstrung by an inability to express their ideas, and the strengths as well as the weaknesses of those ideas, clearly in words (rather than numerically or graphically) to an interested but untrained audience. In my experience, people who read voraciously are better equipped to communicate effectively than those that don’t.   
And how about a personal favorite book?
I love to read, so there are a lot of books that I count as favorites. I’m still partial to paper copies rather than PDFs, which tells you how old I am. 
What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?
I certainly didn’t anticipate growing into the different roles I have played in field studies using the NOAA P-3 research aircraft. It’s been a delight, but also a real challenge, to be involved in so many different aspects of planning, execution, and interpretation of the data from these multifaceted studies. I look forward to someone else enjoying many of those responsibilities the next time we deploy. 
Do you have an outside hobby?
I used to be very active, but since starting at NOAA I’ve neglected my old pursuits. I quickly got into the habit of late nights and weekends in the lab – either because it was rewarding, or because I am only half as effective as other people here, I don’t know for sure. These days my outside hobbies are 4 years old and 2 months old – my daughter and son, respectively. In my lazy middle age, I don’t have the stamina for much else, but my wife (herself a research scientist in NOAA GMD) is trying to change that. 
What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
My other degree is in classical studies, so I could have been teaching Latin to whoever would sit still for it. At one point in graduate school I thought about being a bicycle mechanic. When I was racing, I did all the work on my own bikes, but I’ve fired myself several times for incompetence. It’s probably best I stayed in science. 
Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

Choosing a single favorite is tough. I’m amazed at individuals in ancient Arabia and Greece who could reason their ways, for example, to a new algebra and to a good guess at the circumference of the earth, while their peers were still tossing anatomically correct sculptures from cliffs to encourage the gods to provide a good harvest in the coming year. It’s also hard to believe the conditions under which early polar and tropical explorers worked to make their discoveries. I doubt I could take notes and think objectively while pouring sweat from a malarial fever, or while watching my own teeth fall out from scurvy. Those were people who were committed to their science.

Tom Ryerson has a bachelor's degree from the College of William and Mary in Virginia and a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado at Boulder.   

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