An interview with Eric Barron, NCAR’s new director
Eric Barron has come full circle. He started his career at NCAR in the 1970s when he applied for a summer fellowship—and surprised himself by getting it. He later left NCAR to join the university community. Now, he’s once again gazing at the Flatirons from his office window, this time as NCAR’s new director.
Eric comes to NCAR from the University of Texas, where he was dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences and held the Jackson Chair in Earth System Science. He replaces Tim Killeen, who has accepted a position as director for geosciences at NSF.
A geologist by training, Eric came here on a Cray Supercomputing Fellowship in 1976 while pursuing a graduate degree in oceanography at the University of Miami. He became a postdoctoral fellow and early-career scientist, leaving NCAR in 1985 to return to UM as an associate professor. He was then dean of Pennsylvania State University’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences before his move to Texas.
Walter Orr Roberts • 1960–68
John Firor • 1968–74
Francis Bretherton • 1974–80
Wilmot Hess • 1980–86
Richard Anthes • 1986–88
Robert MacQueen (acting) • 1988
Robert Serafin • 1989–2000
Timothy Killeen • 2000–08
Eric Barron • 2008–present
Walt Roberts served as both UCAR’s first president and NCAR’s first director from 1961 to 1967. Francis Bretherton also took both roles during his tenure, with John Firor serving as NCAR executive director and handling much of the center’s day-to-day administration from 1974 to 1979.
Earlier this year, Eric served as chair of the UCAR Board of Trustees, a position he resigned upon accepting the NCAR directorship.
Staff Notes sat down with Eric, who’s settling into his office on the fifth floor of the Mesa Lab, to talk about the road to NCAR and his plans as director.
Staff Notes: What attracts you to the NCAR director position?
Eric: Above all else, two things: There is an extraordinary amount of quality at NCAR, and what’s going on here is of absolutely critical importance to society. I can’t think of two things that would make a job better: good people, and knowing that what you’re doing is really important.
Staff Notes: What qualities do you bring to the role?
Eric: A variety of things. It doesn’t hurt to have a little history—to understand what it means to be a graduate student at NCAR, postdoc, ladder scientist, external participant, and trustee. I have a fair amount of managerial experience as dean at two different large universities in rather different programs. Certainly it helps to have some sense of budgets and promotion, and all those things that make any kind of institution run. And I’m a very committed person. That makes a difference.
Staff Notes: How would you characterize your leadership style?
Eric: I really like to talk to people, get advice, and have interactions. I promote this even though in many cases I might hear things that I can’t do or can’t agree with. I think that no one is so wise that they can just merrily go off and believe that they know all the answers. But at the same time, I know I have to make decisions and I’m not afraid to make them.
A second element of my leadership style is that I like to think strategically. An awful lot of institutions around the world have strategic plans that aren’t strategic. I think a strategic plan should be actionable, so that what you’re looking at takes you somewhere. It makes a big difference to people when they sense what the future is and know what their leadership is working toward.
Staff Notes: How do you plan to stay abreast of developments at NCAR?
Eric: I had advice from a dean who said, “Leave your office and walk around. Just walk around and interact with people.” I’m setting up sessions where I’m going to go division by division and talk to people and get to know people at different levels. But I think we also have to have structural ways to promote communication.
Staff Notes: How did you first get interested in atmospheric science, geology, and oceanography?
Eric: I was interested in marine geology and geophysics. I decided that plate tectonics was fascinating, and so I started to work. Then I decided that there were already too many people working in the area and that I needed to think about what was going to happen after the notion of plate tectonics. I came to the conclusion that how changing mountains and continents influenced ocean-atmosphere circulation was an interesting topic.
Staff Notes: An atmospheric scientist on your thesis committee suggested that you apply for the NCAR Cray Supercomputing Fellowship to learn vector processing. How did you react?
Eric: I thought, “What is he thinking?” There are only a handful of people they’re going to take, and they’re going to take atmospheric scientists and physical oceanographers—they’re not going to take a crazy geologist.
Staff Notes: Obviously, you got the fellowship. How did things unfold?
Eric: I brought with me the research I was working on for my dissertation, and I showed it to different people, talking to people in the climate modeling division. I got a very friendly reception. I was invited back and spent every summer between 1976 and 1980 as a visitor. NCAR scientists were a key part of my dissertation.
Staff Notes: What would you have said if someone told you then that you’d be director of NCAR someday?
Eric: I would have really thought that was unlikely [laughing].
Staff Notes: What appeals to you about living in Boulder?
Eric: Ninety percent of me doesn’t care where I live—I care where I work, because I get involved in what I’m doing. But I would say that my wife, Molly, does not share that point of view. She’s very happy to be here. I met my wife here in Boulder, got married here, and our two children were born here. We know Boulder. And we do like a sense of sanctuary where we live, with space and trees around us, and you can have that here.
Staff Notes: What do you like to do outside work?
Eric: I’ve always loved to play racquetball, and squash is OK. I like hiking and walking, which there’s a lot of opportunity for around Boulder.