Reaching for the Stars…and circling back to Earth
By Shannon Burgert
Waleed Abdalati had always dreamed of working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and he always thought that dream would be out of reach. But then a high-school teacher told Abdalati that he would love to see him working at NASA. “In that minute the seed was planted,” says Abdalati. “I thought, wow, maybe I could work at NASA.”
Not only would Abdalati go on to hold numerous positions at the agency, including research scientist and head of a research group, but in 2011 he was asked to serve for two years as NASA’s chief scientist.
Abdalati grew up in New Hartford, N.Y. His father died when he was 12, and in the years that followed his mother spent much of the time in hospitals. They did not have much money, but Abdalati says what they did have was a foundation set in strong values. After an undergraduate degree from Syracuse and a short time working as an engineer, he headed to the University of Colorado at Boulder for graduate school, where he shifted his studies to earth science.
Abdalati was won over not only by CU’s science and engineering programs, but also by Boulder’s lifestyle and the 60-degree days when he visited in February. He adds, “Professionally, for someone who does earth-science work, it’s an amazing place,” with the capabilities afforded by having the university, federal labs and industry within reach. “I can’t think of a better place to be.” (Of course, bike rides to Sweet Cow in Louisville, where Abdalati lives with his wife and daughters, only help.)
Not long after he received his Ph.D., Abdalati won the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, an award given to him in 1999 by President Clinton. The award recognized both Abdalati’s achievements and his promise as a scientist.
A Voice, an Advocate and an Advisor
Abdalati has done much of his own research at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), the largest public research institute at CU (which also happens to be the No. 1 university in the nation for NASA funding). Abdalati is now director of CIRES, which comprises more than 500 researchers and staff, and nearly 200 graduate and undergraduate students. He emphasizes the importance of understanding, and hopefully improving, the human relationship with the environment.
Abdalati’s research focuses on using satellite observations to understand how the planet’s ice coverage is changing. His work has taken him to places like Greenland, Patagonia and the Canadian Arctic. “I love ice. I love nature in its most raw, pristine form,” he says.
His earth-science background was a natural fit for NASA, one of whose objectives is to observe and understand phenomena in the atmosphere and on earth. To better see what’s going on around us, you need perspective from space, he says. “Until you step outside and go a few hundred miles above the earth you can’t really grasp the comprehensive aspects of changes on the planet,” he explains. “Earth science is part of NASA’s core mission.”
Abdalati says he felt it a great honor to work as NASA’s chief scientist, with the opportunity to be a voice, an advocate and an advisor. He says he “had a front-row seat to some of society’s greatest achievements,” including the last shuttle launch and both the launch of the Curiosity Rover and its landing on Mars.
Of the Curiosity landing, Abdalati says, “It really was an amazing engineering achievement, and to be around the people who dedicated a decade of their lives, day in, day out, to have it culminate in that moment was unbelievable.”
Currently, Abdalati is working with documentary producer Geoffrey Haines-Stiles (of the original Cosmos series and the recent Earth: The Operators’ Manual) on a documentary for PBS. The Crowd & the Cloud will explore citizen science, looking at ways that the public can work collaboratively on issues like climate change, wildlife conservation, and air and water pollution. Abdalati will host the four-part series, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and is due out in early 2017.
Making a difference is what Abdalati finds most rewarding, and most often he finds that gratification when he is able to connect with people through public speaking. Reaching people, he says, gives him energy.
Which leads back to words of wisdom Abdalati received in college from one of his professors in a psychology class. A student asked the question, “How do you know when you’re in love?” Abdalati says, “His answer was beautiful. He said, ‘If it energizes you, you’re in love. If it drains you, you’re not.’ What stuck with me was the simple notion that if something energizes you, it’s probably the right thing for you. That’s been my compass: Find the things that give you energy.”
Shannon Burgert, Ph.D., teaches fifth grade at Fireside Elementary School in Louisville. An Ironman athlete, she writes often for Boulder Magazine about health and science.