The many careers of Piers Sellers

I first heard of Piers Sellers some time in the mid-1990s, on a trip to the southern BOREAS field site when I was in my master’s program at the University of Montana. The talk was something on the order of “… have you heard? Piers is entering the astronaut program!” which, at the time, came as a complete non-sequitur to me. Why would someone at the peak of an influential scientific career at NASA choose to walk away?

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

At the time, Piers had already made some fundamental progress in at least three areas of science: bringing land-atmosphere interactions and ecology into atmospheric and climate models; working with Compton Tucker to show that weather satellites can be used to generate global estimates of plant productivity; and organizing unprecedented field campaigns like FIFE and BOREAS to show how it all came together — that yes, you really can scale physiological processes from cellular to global levels. As my grad advisor Steve Running says: nontrivial accomplishments.

Then, 20 years later, I started making my list of who I’d like to interview for Forecast, and Piers was on the list. It’s a long list, though, and Piers’ background edges more towards biogeochemistry and away from physical climate — my area at Nature. But then I read Piers’ moving Opinion piece at the NY Times, in which he announced his diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I realized I’d better try as soon as possible, and with the help of Compton Tucker — one of Piers’ closest friends and neighbor — I was able  to arrange a call.

If you read the NY Times piece, it’ll come as no surprise, but Piers was incredibly gracious, funny, optimistic and passionate about life and science, which, for Piers, are more or less the same thing.

I learned, at last, that he’d been trying for some time to get into the astronaut program. Once in, he stayed for 15 years, conducting three space walks and six trips to the international space station. Eventually, he wanted to make space for younger astronauts to join the program and chose to return to NASA, this time as acting Deputy Director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate … AND … Acting Director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The three careers span an incredible range: individual scientist, astronaut (or operator, as Piers calls it), and administrator. Now, Piers estimates that he has about 500 days left, and has narrowed in on family and work as the highest priority — with climate change at the forefront.

But it’s not all serious stuff. Piers also tells me how he brought his grade school’s charter into space … although maybe it was a copy!

2 Comments

  1. Dear Michael,

    I just want to say that I’ve been catching up on your podcasts since I discovered them a few weeks ago (after searching for the words ‘forecast’ and ‘modeling’ on iTunes) and have been enormously impressed with what you’re doing here. I am a disease modeller and forecaster (infectious and chronic diseases) and I have realized that I need to listen in on the climate modelling debate to get some wisdom about the same problems I encounter in my field. Your work here is just spectacular. The Piers Sellers podcast has been the best of the bunch for me so far. You’re doing a great service here so please know you should try as best you can to keep it up vigorously. I’m telling my friends about it!

    PS. Couple of things: 1) I’m sure you know most of the people in your field but, just in case because who can keep up with everyone, have you ever come across an American called Wendy Parker before? I think she’d be a great interview for you; I think she’s at Durham University in the UK at the moment. 2) I realise there’s a huge amount of ground to cover w/r/t climate science, but the topic you’ve chosen for the podcast is much broader (including, of course, my field of disease modeling, but also election forecasting etc.)

    Thanks much and keep up the great work! Yours, M Gambhir

    1. Hi Manoj, and thanks for the comments! I’m glad to hear that the podcast is relevant for your work. In fact I don’t know Wendy, and am grateful for the suggestion! It looks like she’d bring a valuable and interesting philosophical perspective.

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