Joanne Simpson: Trailblazer for Women in STEM

Throughout the course of my education and career, I have heard Joanne Simpson’s name and knew she was a very well respected and highly esteemed atmospheric scientist. In fact, the American Meteorological Society named an award after her for researchers who make outstanding contributions to advancing the understanding of the physics and dynamics of the tropical atmosphere. She has been described by those who knew her as “an animated speaker with sharp eyes and a crackling voice…the type of person who has simply been too busy to worry about growing old.” As I learned more about her, I found myself wishing for a time machine so that I could go back in time and talk with her!

Joanne was born March 23, 1923 in Boston, Massachusetts, and like many of us, her childhood experiences helped to define who she would become. In fact, after her mother struggled through a difficult divorce, she told Joanne, “If it weren’t for you children, I would go back and earn my living.” Joanne decided then that she would never allow herself to get into that situation, and by the time she was ten years old, she promised herself that “No matter what happened, I was going to be able to make my own living and to provide for whatever children I might have without depending on anybody else.” What an immense sense of self-reliance and responsibility to take on at such a young age.

Photograph courtesy Joanne Simpson and the Schlesinger Library

Though she was always fascinated by clouds while sailing off Cape Cod, she wasn’t initially interested in the science. After graduating from high school, Joanne moved away in 1940 and began studying astrophysics at the University of Chicago (a notable deviation from other women in her family, all of whom had attended the all women’s Radcliffe College). She has said that had it not been for World War II, she likely would have continued into astrophysics. However, as the war brewed abroad and in the United States, Joanne became a student pilot. This required taking a meteorology course, and Joanne was fascinated by it! She asked the instructor if there were any other meteorology courses, and he directed her to Carl-Gustaf Rossby (a Swedish meteorologist who first explained the large-scale motions of the atmosphere in terms of fluid mechanics – a true pioneer in the development of meteorology as a science) who had just arrived at the university to set up an institute of meteorology. As Joanne put it, “I made an appointment with him, went into his office, and ten minutes later, I was in the World War II meteorology program as a teacher-in-training.” She continued teaching meteorology to the aviation cadets until the war ended, enjoying every minute!

After receiving her undergraduate degree in 1943, Simpson went on to complete a master’s degree in 1945 under the supervision of Rossby. Although she excelled in her work, when the war came to an end and Joanne wished to continue her studies to earn her PhD, she faced another challenge. The Faculty Advisor told her that no woman had ever gotten a PhD in Meteorology, none ever would, and even if any of them did, she would never be given a job. She began teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she met Herbert Riehl. Though she had been rejected many times, she asked if he would be her PhD advisor. Much to her (and everyone’s) surprise, he agreed, and she began to concentrate on the development of tropical cumulous clouds.

At the time, nobody thought clouds were a big part of what drives the weather; they were more the result of weather, not the cause. Rossby even said that no one was very interested in them, so it was a good subject “for a little girl to study.” Despite the pushback and challenges, she and Riehl published breakthrough papers on tropical meteorology and hurricanes. In 1949, Joanne Simpson became the first woman to earn a PhD in meteorology (thank you, Joanne!!). She then moved on to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts to work as a research meteorologist. It was here where she constructed some of the first mathematical models of clouds (seen above).

When Simpson began researching at Woods Hole, little was known about how heat and moisture traveled from the tropics to higher latitudes. She knew that she would need to gather many more observations from equatorial regions to get the answers. She rallied and fought to secure a Navy airplane that would record meteorological measurements such as wind motions, humidity, liquid water, air pressure, temperature, and more from those regions. “Getting the first instrumented airplane,” she said, “and arguing that trade cumulus clouds were important and that we ought to go make measurements of them was the biggest contribution I made at Woods Hole.” Not only did she secure the airplane, though, she also traveled with the team to perform the research as well. This was a huge deal, because at the time, women were not allowed on field trips. Fortunately, the Navy officer who authorized the aircraft fought for her to go on the field trip, saying “No Joanne, no airplane” (shoutout to a great ally, who was ahead of his time!) Her reputation as a scientist was solidified with that trip, and by 1958, Simpson and her former PhD advisor, Riehl, threw the meteorology world into a tailspin with another revelation!

The Navy provided a PBY flying boat to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute so Joanne Simpson could study tropical clouds. In this photograph she stands with her crew in front of the aircraft. (Photograph courtesy Joanne Simpson and the Schlesinger Library)

They proposed the “Hot Tower” hypothesis of tropical convection, identifying hot towers as clouds that carried undiluted warm, moist air from the ocean surface 15,000 meters (50,000 feet) into the air.  Some people doubted the hypothesis, but their predictions were verified by field experiments twenty years later. She left Woods Hole in 1960 to begin teaching at the University of California and researching weather modification. By the early 1960s, she built the first computer model of clouds. As her career progressed, she became an advisor to the U.S. Weather Bureau’s National Hurricane Research Project, before joining the Experimental Meteorology Laboratory from 1965-1974. Joanne’s career was was active; following her time with the Experimental Meteorology Laboratory, she became an Endowed Chair Professor in the Environmental Science Department at the University of Virginia. However, despite her her already substantial accomplishments, the primarily-male faculty did not consider her a “real professor” simply because she was a woman.

Photograph courtesy Joanne Simpson and the Schlesinger Library

Fortunately, her colleague Dave Atlas was putting together a new Laboratory for Atmospheres at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Once she reached out, she learned that The Severe Storms Branch needed leadership and he asked her to fill the role. She initially took a one-year leave from the University of Virginia, and she felt at home right away. On the second day at Goddard, she went to the ladies room to freshen up and, to her surprise, found two other women scientists washing their hands and discussing meteorology. She said this was her first time encountering a working environment so friendly to women. Her one-year leave from the University extended into two, and she eventually determined that Goddard was much more favorable work environment for herself. She credits the choice as “the best career decision she ever made.” She made integral contributions to several historic NASA field missions, including the Convection And Moisture EXperiment (CAMEX) missions, the Tropical Ocean Global Atmospheres/Coupled Ocean Atmosphere Response Experiment (TOGA COARE), the GARP Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE), and the Winter Monsoon Experiment (Winter MONEX).

In 1986, NASA asked Joanne to lead the team for the  proposed Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), a satellite to carry the first space-based rain radar, which would measure rainfall across the tropics and subtropics. Between 1986 and launch in November 1997, Simpson worked in close partnership with the project engineers, and recruited brilliant scientists to develop the data system. Many in the meteorological community, including Simpson, believe that her involvement with TRMM is the single biggest accomplishment of her long career. TRMM has been instrumental in helping scientists learn how hurricanes start in the Atlantic Basin and in demonstrating how dust and smoke can drastically influence rainfall.

TRMM data provided a 3-D look at the cloud heights; temperature and rainfall in Tropical Storm Edzani, revealing a “Hot Tower” or towering cloud near 17 km (10.6 miles) high indicating a strong storm. Credit:NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce

“Joanne was the heart and soul of TRMM during the pre-launch phase, sharpening the scientific focus of the mission, resolving critical choices related to instruments, orbit, etc. and fighting (and winning) the budget and political battles to get us to launch and beyond. TRMM would not exist if it hadn’t been for Joanne.”

-Dr. Robert Adler, Senior Research Scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park; formerly Joanne’s Deputy on TRMM and also TRMM Project Scientist later in the mission,

Joanne had a career filled with awards and recognition of her research. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, awarded the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Award (the highest honor bestowed by the American Meteorological Society), presented with a Guggenheim Fellowship, served as the first female President of the American Meteorological Society,  selected by the Los Angeles Times as Woman of the Year in Science during 1963, won a Department of Commerce Silver Medal, and received numerous NASA and Goddard awards. In 2002, she was awarded the prestigious International Meteorological Organization Prize. She was the first woman to receive the award.

Joanne Simpson often reflected that she felt lucky to get into meteorology when she did and felt that being the first woman in the field really pushed her. Not only were her personal goals and profession on the line, but also she felt responsible for the fate of other, younger women who wanted to be meteorologists. “I have always felt that I’ve been carrying a big burden for other women, because if I mess up then the chances for other women to get the same kind of job are going to be diminished,” she said. Though Joanne passed away March 4, 2010, her contributions will forever live on as a tremendous part of meteorological history and women’s history. Thank you, Joanne.

Though this blog focused on many of the highlights from Joanne’s career, she lived a very full a multi-faceted life. If you’d like to learn more about her life, James R. Fleming published a biography on “the pioneer woman scientist and best tropical scientist of her generation.”

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