A research scientist with the NOAA-funded Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Owen Cooper studies air pollutants to support informed management decisions concerning air quality.
1. Why does your research matter?
Clean air is a valuable natural resource for the United States with benefits for human health as well as crop and ecosystem productivity. My research helps identify the sources and destinations of air pollutants, allowing the US to make informed decisions for managing air quality.
2. What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I enjoy discovery. You can hypothesize about how the atmosphere works all you like but you never really know until you go out and make measurements and analyze the data. Sometimes the results support your hypothesis and other times you find out your hypothesis was wrong, but you often discover something unexpected.
3. Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
I wish I could say I make measurements from aircraft flying all over the world, instead I sit in front of a computer and analyze the measurements made by other scientists flying all over the world.
4. What in your lab could you not live without?
NOAA ESRL has an incredible staff of vastly experienced researchers. Being in their presence every day allows me to bounce ideas off of them and they offer advice and analytical techniques that I never would have thought of on my own.
5. If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?
It’s already been invented and tested by NOAA but I would want to implement a fleet of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that routinely measure pollution at all levels of the atmosphere across North America to allow us to exactly quantify the sources and sinks of pollution in the USA.
6. When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
When I was a kid I had a ball building two ant farms using ants that I tracked down and dug up myself. One farm thrived while the other was eaten by a large spider that took up residence in their burrow. I always wondered how that spider got into the farm.
7. What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
Initially I had a hard time grasping some of the concepts I learned in my university physics classes. Then I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time which explained physics in terms anyone can understand.
8. And how about a personal favorite book?
Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
"You can hypothesize about how the atmosphere works all you like but you never really know until you go out and make measurements and analyze the data."
9. What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?
I recently had a research paper published in the high-profile journal, Nature. The study generated a lot of attention from the press and I unexpectedly found myself giving lots of interviews for print newspapers as well as radio. I found that I enjoyed explaining the science to the general public.
10. Do you have an outside hobby?
I volunteer with a local organization to restore damaged wildlife habitat, streams and hiking trails on public lands and National Parks in Colorado. The park visitors always tell us how much they appreciate our work.
11. What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
I’ve always loved history so I probably would have become an archeologist.
12. Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
Thomas Edison, not just for his inventions but for his work ethic and perseverance.
Owen Cooper is a research scientist with the NOAA-funded Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of North Carolina and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. In 2007, he received an Outstanding Scientific Paper Award from NOAA Research for preeminent climate research.