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A Renaissance woman joins NCAR

New associate director links research, policy, and education



by Bob Henson

Denise Stephenson Hawk

Denise Stephenson Hawk. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

The tragic collision of government policy, demographics, and nature made Hurricane Katrina one of the nation’s worst calamities in memory. Denise Stephenson Hawk sees this disaster as a classic example of how multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research concerning the impacts of weather and climate on people and communities can serve the nation and world.

“Regardless of the degree of accuracy of the predictions of the storm’s track or its intensity, Katrina was still a disaster of huge proportions,” says Stephenson Hawk. “Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Floyd highlight the need for SERE and the urgency of its research.”

As the newest associate director of NCAR, Stephenson Hawk now leads SERE—the center’s Societal- Environ­mental Research and Education Laboratory. SERE’s work on the Earth system includes the study of human- environment interactions and the generation of policy-relevant guidance on weather and climate topics. The lab also incorporates the Advanced Study Program, which supports graduate and postdoctoral appointments throughout NCAR.

“If I could define the ideal position for myself, then this would be it,” says Stephenson Hawk of her new job. For one thing, working with both physical and social scientists is something she knows well. At Clark Atlanta University, she was the founding director of the interdisciplinary Earth Systems Science Program, which involved the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities. A physical scientist herself, Stephenson Hawk also served as professor and interim chair of Clark Atlanta’s physics department.

Also on Stephenson Hawk’s diverse résumé are leadership posts in academia (she served as provost for Spelman College, her alma mater) and industry (at AT&T Bell Laboratories), as well as senior-level consulting on federal transportation programs and extensive service on national advisory councils and committees.

Stephenson Hawk’s first contact with NCAR came during her undergraduate years at Spelman, when she attended a talk by NCAR scientist Warren Washington. “Warren focused on the dynamics of climate change and the ways that the traditional disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology contributed to our understanding of weather and climate,” she recalls. The talk was a life-changing event for Stephenson Hawk, who decided to shift from mathematics to environmental modeling. She went on to become the first African American and the second woman to earn a doctorate in geophysical fluid dynamics at Princeton University.

One of SERE’s goals is to examine the ways in which social science can help citizens, governments, and businesses grapple with the challenges of weather and climate change. The topic is red-hot now, but Stephenson Hawk believes it’s important to make sure the attention is sustained—by expressing global projections in terms of regional implications, for example.

“Once the global problem becomes local, people will become more likely to respond to it,” she says. “Katrina was a regional hurricane that had both national and global consequences. Unless we focus our resources to better understand, develop, and implement plans to address both the unfavorable and favorable consequences of weather and climate, then the benefits of our predictive capabilities will not be realized.”

In New Orleans, as well as many other regions, it’s those with limited resources who suffer the most from uncertainties in climate and weather. In studying how people respond and the associated impacts, says Stephenson Hawk, “you have to understand the continuum of the spectrum, from people who don’t have clean water to drink to those who have everything at the touch of a finger.”

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