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Neely, Ryan
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Neely, Ryan

Putting A Laser Focus on Climate Change

Ryan Neely is a physical scientist for NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Ph.D. candidate uses light detection and ranging (lidar) to study the relationship between particles in the stratosphere and climate. In 2011, Neely was honored as co-author of a publication selected for a 2010 OAR Outstanding Scientific Paper Award. While his research instrument of choice is a lidar, what he views as the most essential piece of lab equipment might surprise you.


Why does your research matter?

Attempting to understand the processes within our atmosphere that combine to create climate variability is one of the most important challenges of our age due to the global impact humans now have on the planet. Without a fundamental understanding of how the atmosphere works we cannot make intelligent decisions about our future.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

Traveling to extreme locations to make measurements, meeting new and interesting people, and that one moment in a million when you realize you figured out something new.

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

I am split pretty evenly between my computer and instrument located in Boulder, Colo., at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory and NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division’s field sites in American Samoa; Mauna Loa, Hawaii; and Summit, Greenland.

What in your lab could you not live without?

Probably, my iPhone. I use it to stay in contact with people, take notes, read the latest journal articles, keep my schedule and run my instruments.

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

Currently, I am very interested in understanding the impact of anthropogenic and volcanic emissions on the stratosphere. This would be made a lot easier if I had a lidar (an instrument that uses a pulsed laser and a telescope to make profiles of the atmosphere from the surface up to 50 kilometers) that could differentiate between different types of sulfur species emitted from these sources. It would also be useful to mount this instrument on a satellite with global coverage in order to understand these processes on a global scale. The instrument would ideally to be built to last at least 20 years in order to accurately understand trends without having to deal with changes in instruments.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

I have always known. It was not always atmospheric science, but I always wanted to be outside doing science.

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

In Search of Schrödinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality by John Gribbin. This is a delightful book discussing the history and weirdness of the quantum reality we live and how the comprehension of this reality shaped the modern world.

And how about a personal favorite book?

Stephen King’s The Gunslinger

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

Working together with such a great team of people. I never expected that I would get to work collaboratively so much of the time.

Do you have an outside hobby?

Cooking, photography, climbing Colorado’s 14ers (14,000-foot or higher mountains), and snowboarding.

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

I would have been a science teacher.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

Currently it is Richard Feynman. He was a brilliant, communicative, outside thinker who did not see bounds in anything he did.


Ryan Neely holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from North Carolina State University. He completed a master's degree at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D., both graduate degrees in atmospheric and oceanic science. NOAA logo.

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