Russell Schnell Ph.D., is an atmospheric scientist and deputy director of the Global Monitoring Division of the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. He joined NOAA in 1991 as director of the Mauna Loa Observatory and moved to Boulder in 1998 to become director of observatory and global network operations. In addition to his scientific achievements (he has published 134 papers and holds patents in chemistry and microbiology), he is passionate about sharing science with broader audiences.
A captivating speaker, he has given talks to thousands of people during his career. He uses analogies and props, including a large transparent inflatable globe, to help communicate complex scientific concepts to lay audiences. Early this year, he received the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research 2011 Daniel L. Albritton Outstanding Science Communicator Award.
He is originally from the village of Castor in Alberta, Canada. Read his Q&A profile to learn how a summer job led him into atmospheric science.
Why is your research important?
The composition of the Earth's atmosphere is rapidly changing due to gaseous effluents produced by humankind. This changing composition is causing increasing amounts of solar energy to be captured and held near the Earth's surface. Hence, global warming. It is amazing to see changes happening on the scale of weeks to months.
"My job has allowed me to live in, work, or travel to 88 countries on every continent..."
How do you help wider audiences to understand and appreciate NOAA science?
I give presentations to any audience that will listen. These groups range from two to 200 or more, from grade school classes to professional societies, and from religious groups to alumni associations. I give about 30 to 40 presentations a year.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
The great variety of science we do. How all of the different measurements interconnect is a daily fascination.
Where do you do most of your work?
When I am in my office in Boulder, half my time is spent on a computer communicating with the people at our global measurement sites around the world. About 20 percent of my time, I am traveling to these measurement sites or related meetings around the world. My job has allowed me to live in, work, or travel to 88 countries on every continent and to the South and North Poles.
What in your lab could you not live without?
Access to the Internet.
If you could invent any tool to make your work more efficient and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?
An instrument that would measure the concentrations of numerous gases and aerosols in real time that I could carry in a light suitcase. Then I would travel around the world in an unending journey monitoring the global atmosphere and showing people how it is changing.
When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?
Before I went to grade school I was fascinated by airplanes and clouds. I became a pilot at 17, and when I was 18 had a summer job studying hailstorms. Part of the job was to fly after hailstorms to plot damage to crops. This eventually led into the atmospheric science field.
How did you become interested in communicating about science?
When I was in junior high school most of my teachers could not take a simple principal and put it into a concept I could understand. I vowed that if I ever knew something of interest to others and I had an audience, I would do my best to make concepts simple, exciting and hopefully memorable.
What's at the top of your recommended reading list for a young person exploring career options?
I cannot recommend a reading list as I grew up with few books in my environment. Instead, I learned by doing things and talking endlessly with a wide variety of people. In my experience, careers are often shaped by happenstance and random events, not by a well thought out plan.
What part of your job with NOAA did you least expect to be doing?
Talking to politicians and administrators who make monumental decisions affecting science and the environment for reasons having nothing to do with the scientific issues at hand.
Do you have an outside hobby?
Woodworking. Currently I am making wooden steam engine trains for children. In the past three years I have made about 100.
What would you be doing if you were not working for NOAA?
I would be the medical doctor in the small, isolated rural community I grew up in. I was accepted into medical school but deferred for a year to travel, and never came back. To assuage my guilt, I pay the education for any student from the village (Castor, Alberta, Canada) who goes to medical school in the hope one will go back. So far it is 0 for 3.
Russ Schnell holds bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and biology. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees in atmospheric science from the University of Wyoming.