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Natalie Mahowald: Interdisciplinary intellect

Natalie Mahowald recalls how she always wanted to be a scientist, but that she did not want to pursue biology “because I thought there wasn’t enough math,” she says. Instead, she went down the road of physical sciences.

Now, Mahowald combines biology, atmospheric chemistry and a slew of other scientific fields into cutting-edge interdisciplinary climate work. Her results, both from her own cross-cutting thinking and from her ability to bring scientists from other disciplines into the mix, have shed light on soil and dust biogeochemistry, with implications for climate change and global earth systems science.

Natalie Mahowald of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colo., has broken ground in determining the impacts of dust on climate and ecosystems. Image is courtesy of Natalie Mahowald.

Mahowald is one of a new generation of scientists who combine seemingly disparate fields to address earth processes, says Scott Doney, a marine geochemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who has worked with Mahowald for almost a decade on various programs. “Some people call it earth systems science, others call it biogeochemistry,” Doney says of the new discipline. “All of their mentors were chemists or physicists, and these guys are really developing a new field.”

Mahowald has worked to establish global patterns of dust transport in the atmosphere. Her collaborators have included biologists, who have assisted her in picking out the effects on ecosystems of depositing dust in new places, as a result of the minerals the particles might carry or their warming and cooling effects in the atmosphere. The resulting models have helped to paint a more complex view of how the planet functions.

Mahowald has a “rare gift” of understanding other scientists’ problems, says David Siegel, a former colleague and mentor at the University of California in Santa Barbara. That trait enables her to act as a translator between disciplines, to make sense of things from a big-picture perspective. Siegel and Mahowald, for example, have collaborated on his specialty, ocean color, which is an indicator of ecosystems health, and her specialty, dust, which complicates that picture, Siegel says.

Some of Mahowald’s current international interdisciplinary work involves encouraging young scientists’ collaborations as part of a program known as AIMES (Analysis, Integration and Modeling the Earth Systems), which brings together researchers from Mexico, China and elsewhere.

Mahowald has always had a global perspective. “I had three goals when I was 12: I wanted a Ph.D., I wanted to speak a foreign language, and I wanted to live abroad,” the now 40-year-old scientist says. She had accomplished all three by the age of 30.

The seventh child in her family, Mahowald grew up with a father who was a biochemistry professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, and a mother who was a medical technician. Two of Mahowald’s brothers are electrical engineers, and Mahowald was first attracted to electrical engineering because of its difficulty. But she soon discovered she didn’t like it, she says, “so I ended up in physics, which was perfect for me.” Mahowald earned a second major in German while getting her bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

But Mahowald was also interested in environmental and social issues. After talking to a scientist working on air pollution issues, she decided to spend a year doing air pollution consulting, which integrated sociology, science and math. She eventually earned a master’s degree in resources policy from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, after which she did Ph.D. work at MIT in atmospheric sciences, “which was clearly the right thing for me.”

In her experiences as a scientist abroad, including during her postdoctoral work in Sweden, Mahowald worked with people outside her own specialty, from glaciologists to terrestrial ecologists. From that experience, she learned to keep seeking out similar collaborations.

Mahowald says she finds that the “really interesting problems [are] at the edge and between traditional disciplines.” In instances where the problem requires expertise outside her area, she knows she can “find another expert interested in collaborating. I’ve just had amazing experiences, when you take huge steps forward just communicating across disciplines.”

Mahowald says she also likes to be one of the first people to look at a scientific problem, if not the first to identify it. Most recently, the American Meteorological Society gave Mahowald the Henry G. Houghton Award, for her “outstanding contributions” to understanding soil particles in the atmosphere and for her work in developing models that cover both the climate and biological impacts of airborne dust.

On top of an incredibly demanding scientific career, colleagues also point out that Mahowald made the time to raise two children, successfully maintaining family and career. “When it’s time to do science, she turns that on,” Siegel says. Still, Doney says, “she knows when to stop doing work and go for a run,” a hobby that Mahowald says she discovered only when she got to college. That balance, Doney says, makes a better scientist in the end.

And it certainly seems to have paid off for Mahowald. She has published tens of papers in her current position as an atmospheric and soil scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colo.

The future lies in “really getting a handle on the human-climate interactions,” Mahowald says. “We’re just starting to understand things well enough to put in models in terms of natural interactions. We need to understand how humans are going to respond to climate, how they’re going to change industrial emissions and land use.”

Naomi Lubick
Geotimes contributing writer

For past coverage of Mahowald’s work, read a Nov. 14, 2003, Web Extra in our online archives.

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