Feature

Pieternel Levelt: Shining Light on Atmospheric Ozone
06.10.04
Pieternel Levelt riding a bike
A scientist, an athlete, a parent, a manager, a problem solver -- Pieternel Levelt of the Netherlands is all of these things. Yet when she tells people she works at the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute, many assume she is a weather forecaster. And that is one thing, she quickly points out, she is not.

Image to left: Pietrenel Levelt enjoys being both a scientist and an athlete. Credit: NASA

But there is a connection between her important work and the weather -- global weather, that is. Levelt is interested in how our planet's atmospheric ozone, so critical to shielding us from damaging ultraviolet radiation and so important to changes in the Earth's climate, is affected by our own human activities.

In her role with NASA, Levelt heads an international team of scientists and engineers. Her group's task has been to ensure the construction of an instrument for collecting a variety of atmospheric data, calibrate the instrument, develop its algorithms and have it ready for its ride aboard the Aura satellite. Pressure? Just this: Everything has to work right the first time!

It's easy for Levelt to trace her interest in science. Her grandfather was a chemist, her grandmother a physicist, and that's only the beginning. As a child, she went to her father, a professor of geophysics, with her questions about science, and to her mother, a law professor, with questions about math. And her husband is a physicist. In all, nine of her 18 closest family members have strong science backgrounds. You could say that science is the family business.

In high school, she liked problem solving -- the harder the problem, the better she liked it. She remembers her chemistry teacher, who encouraged her to solve problems her own way, not always by the book.

But there were teachers who doubted science was the right choice for a girl. One teacher even laughed when she announced she wanted to be an astrophysicist. It was Levelt who had the last laugh, however, as she went on to earn a degree in chemistry and a doctorate in physics. Today, she manages the activities of 15 to 20 other scientists.

Her two children and her deep interest in science are top priorities during this countdown to launch date. But Levelt also looks forward to returning to her favorite sports. When she was very young, it was tennis, gymnastics and judo. Then, in high school, she swam competitively and played water polo. She loved both sprints and distance running, doing her first half-marathon in her early 20s. Shortly after that, she started training for triathlons, distance events that combine swimming, biking and running.

Team science

Photograph of Pieternel Levelt
Sports may re-enter her life at some point. Right now, it's team science that occupies her time.

Image to right: Pietrenel Levelt enjoys the challenges of building an ozone-measuring instrument that can read ultraviolet and visible patterns of the solar light. Credit: NASA

Levelt has coached her team of scientists through the tough challenges involved in building an ozone-measuring instrument designed to read both the ultraviolet and visible patterns of the solar light reflected from the Earth and its atmosphere. The data will yield daily, high-resolution global maps and profiles of ozone -- information that scientists have never had on such an ongoing basis.

And that's not all. The instrument will also measure notorious pollutants in the atmosphere, including nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other trace gases, at spatial resolutions higher than ever before.

If Levelt could pursue her dream science project, what would it be? It's actually pretty close to the one she is doing now. She wants to return to the problem that first captured her scientific interest: How does ozone affect the future of life on Earth?

This time, not only will she have good, reliable data on which to draw, but she'll also have the satisfaction of knowing that her team played an important role in making a state-of-the-art instrument to collect that data.

Adapted with permission: ChemMatters magazine © American Chemical Society 2002
Edited by Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies