Studying Weather and Climate at NASA: Nikki Privé '95 and Lesley Ott '96

by Ted Jou '99

Nikki Privé and Lesley Ott
In late March, Nikki Privé '95 was talking to one of her colleagues at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, a Blair Magnet parent, who mentioned that there was another Blair alumna working in the NASA Global Modeling and Assimilation Office.  She and Lesley Ott '96 both had a vague feeling that they knew each other from somewhere, but it was only then that they realized they had graduated from the Blair Magnet one year apart in the mid-90s.  Privé and Ott both attended the University of Maryland after Blair, but they took different paths to graduate school in meteorology before finding each other working together at Goddard.

Privé majored in mechanical engineering, finding her niche in fluid dynamics. She took a graduate class in meteorology at UMCP and applied to a handful of graduate schools, choosing to go to MIT. She initially wasn't sure where to focus her research, but a few factors led her to a decision: "I really didn't want to end up working somewhere cold, and I don't like doing lots of intensive math derivations, so I gravitated to study of the tropics, where the math is too nonlinear to solve analytically and you don't get sent to live on an ice sheet for months at a time."  Her thesis work focused on the Hadley circulation, a global circulation pattern where air rises near the equator, flows poleward aloft, sinks in the subtropics, and then flows back to the equator at low levels. As she explains, "this causes deserts/dry climates in the subtropics and a band of deep clouds and rain that circles the planet near the equator."  Because the math describing the full circulation is not solvable analytically, Privé's work tested the axisymmetric theory, which ignores longitudinal variation and assumes that the atmosphere behaves symmetrically about the axis of rotation.  Her thesis modeled monsoons about the equator, explaining various characteristics of monsoon behavior and finding certain limitations when asymmetry is introduced.

Ott gravitated towards meteorology early in college, realizing that engineering was not for her.  She took several classes in meteorology at UMCP and got to know many of the professors, staying in College Park for graduate school.  Ott was fascinated with clouds, and her thesis research "focused on using computer models to simulate the physical and chemical development of a storm." (pdf) She compared her models with observations of the chemical environment of storms (collected from airplanes flying into thunderstorms!), and as a result of her of her work, she was able to estimate how much nitrogen oxide is produced by a single lightning flash. As Ott explains, this has "helped us better understand the ozone budget in the atmosphere" and the results "are now used in global models that simulate air pollution and climate change."
After earning her Ph.D. in Meteorology, Ott came to Goddard as a postdoc, where she had a chance to work with satellite datasets and global models. She eventually became a full-time employee, and her research now focuses on global modeling of the carbon cycle, which she explains as "the way that carbon moves between the land, atmosphere, and ocean." This is important because "it controls how rapidly carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas released by human activities, builds up in the atmosphere." For her work, Ott relies extensively on satellite data, and NASA just launched its first dedicated CO2 satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) this past July. She uses the data from OCO-2 and other satellites "to infer land and ocean carbon fluxes globally, and to estimate strong sources like biomass burning and fossil fuel emissions from big cities."

Privé's path to Greenbelt was more circuitous, as she headed out to Colorado after finishing her Ph.D. at MIT.  She was hired as a research assistant with the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere (affiliated with Colorado State University), working at the NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder.  Privé initially worked for the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) program, and then specifically for the Observing System Simulation Experiment (OSSE), which was "a pure modeling study that is used to evaluate whether a future observing instrument will lead to improvements in skill of weather forecasts."  As she explains, the project was primarily modeling with relatively little observational data because "it was extremely difficult at the time to get FAA permissions to fly UAS in any capacity."  During this work, Privé collaborated with a group at Goddard, and when a position opened up in Greenbelt, she moved back to Maryland.  She has been applying her OSSE models to "more general questions about how observational data is used by operational forecast models," and there are plans to conduct modeling in support of future NASA satellite instruments.

Both Privé and Ott have fond memories of Blair, with Privé looking back on her time in stage crew and doing Odyssey of the Mind competitions. Ott remembers a brief stint as the Blair Blazer and building a "barely functional" Rube Goldberg device. When asked about memorable teachers, Ott recalled Mr. Bunday's "enthusiasm for physics," and both Privé and Ott remembered Latin teacher Mr. Nickerson's Halloween re-telling of The Exorcist. When asked about influential mentors, Privé named Sandy MacDonald, a "really fantastic boss" at NOAA, who is currently the President of the American Meteorological Society. Ott pointed to her mother, a high school physics and math teacher, who is "the best person I've ever met at explaining complex ideas about science and math in a way that kids could grasp and get excited about."