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Dr. William Lau - Advancing the Understanding of Earth Systems
June 17, 2014

Part One of Two

[image-51]Name: William Lau
Title: Deputy Director for Atmospheres
Formal Job Classification: Earth Scientist
Organization: Code 610, Earth Science, Science Division

A man of three continents, climate scientist William Lau sees Earth as one.

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

I am an atmospheric scientist by training. I look at how Earth works as a system from a space perspective. I study clouds, precipitation, winds and climate change. In the Earth Science Division, I oversee a lot of activities including launching satellite missions, analysis of data from satellite and ground based observations, field campaigns and computer modeling. The Earth Science Division is also involved in computer simulations of extreme weather and climate events, and building detectors to be installed on satellites.

Do you also perform research?

Yes, my own research involves the atmosphere. I study rainfall, clouds and aerosols and their impact on Earth’s water cycle. The water cycle determines the amount of fresh water available to maintain life on Earth. Extreme variation in the water cycle—such as that caused by severe floods and prolonged droughts—can result in major hardships by disrupting the food chain and causing famine and diseases. I examine patterns of change in global rainfall, clouds and winds to understand what is happening. Most people in my position don’t do research anymore, but I’m proud that I continue to be active in research.

What makes a good leader?

A good leader in Earth science first needs to have a firm grounding and basic knowledge of the sciences. He or she needs to have a vision and possess excellent leadership and interpersonal skills so he or she can work with a diverse team to carry out the vision. A good leader also anticipates problems ahead of time and makes the right decisions.

What is your vision?

My vision is to advance the understanding of Earth system science: how different parts of Earth’s climate system connect with each other and how they respond to climate change.

What is the most important issue facing the Earth climate system?

The big debate going on in the climate change community is how Earth is responding to both natural and anthropogenic changes. There is a general consensus that humans are doing something to change our climate, but we aren’t sure about the extent of changes that can be attributed to human activities in different parts of the climate system. Climate change can happen without anthropogenic forcing.

When we see major extreme weather events like the recent snow storms and extreme cold of this past winter over the central and eastern U.S., we cannot necessarily attribute them to climate change. We have to conduct very thorough data analyses and model simulations in order to answer this question. The answer is likely to be different depending on each phenomenon.

Why is your story one of three continents?

I was born in Macau, then a Portuguese colony but now a part of China. I lived there for the first ten years of my life. I had an official Portuguese birth certificate, though I never considered myself Portuguese because my parents were Chinese. They escaped from the communist regime in mainland China as refugees in Macau, the closest city connected to but outside of China at that time. When I was ten, my family moved to Hong Kong, still a British colony at that time. I left Hong Kong after graduating from Hong Kong University at the age of 22 and enrolled at the University of Washington, Seattle, as a graduate student in physics.

Mine is a story of three continents. I was born in Asia and was raised culturally as Chinese. As a kid, I went to a Portuguese Jesuit school. From high school to college, I was educated under a British colonial system in Hong Kong. In graduate school, I came into the American educational system and have worked for the rest of life in the U.S. I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of cross-cultural education.

What was the impact of having a cross-cultural education?

I appreciate people from different cultures. I value my Chinese traditions, but I also value the culture and educational systems of Europe and America. I see the strengths and weaknesses in these different systems.

My cross-cultural experiences shape my work ethic in terms of how I see things and how I interact with people. I’m comfortable with diversity. My basic instinct is to work hard and get results. My Chinese culture tells me to value education and to respect institution and authority, but my U.S. training tells me to be assertive and to value individual freedom. I applied these principles to the best of my judgment under different situations.

Part Two of Dr. Lau's interview

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Dr. William Lau
Dr. William Lau
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NASA/W. Hrybyk
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Page Last Updated: June 24th, 2014
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner