Ghassem R. Asrar: An Exceptional Performance Award Recipient from NASA

06/02/2016 03:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the West Asia Council has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. Our latest interviewee is Ghassem R. Asrar.

Dr. Ghassem Asrar is Director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a partnership between Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland. Prior to this position, he served as the Director of World Climate Research Program (WCRP) in Geneva, Switzerland from 2008-2013, and as the Deputy Administrator for Natural Resources and Agricultural Systems with Agricultural Research Service (ARS), of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2006-2008. He was with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 1987-2006. He has received numerous awards and honors, including the NASA Exceptional Performance Award (1997), the NASA Distinguished Service Medal (1999), and the NASA Medal for Outstanding Leadership (2000). For more details, please click (here).

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I was born near the historic city of Persepolis in the Province of Fars, and raised in the city of Shiraz, Iran. I was the eldest child among nine siblings. I attended K-12 and university in Shiraz, prior to leaving for the United States in 1978 to complete my graduate degrees at Michigan State University. My goal at that time was to return to Shiraz to my alma mater to conduct research and teach. My plans were influenced to some degree by observing too many loved ones suffer from the lack of medical support during my childhood, notably my uncle who died of cancer at very young age. Other contributing factors were fascinating stories that I read about pioneers such as Ibn Sina (aka Avincea) and Albert Schweitzer, both were multi-talented scientists and medical scholars. I learned about Abraham Lincoln's life and his pioneering efforts during my eighth grade English class, and this motivated me to redouble my efforts to become proficient in English to be able to read more about Lincoln and American history. My favorite subjects were the biographies of scholars and history of science and religions. I believe that my acquired knowledge in these subjects has influenced my personal philosophy and lifestyle.

I vividly recall every aspect of my education and training in Shiraz. The closest elementary school to our home was a 45-minute walk or a 20-minute bicycle ride, if one could afford one. One could take the public buses to and from school, but their unreliable schedule and highly crowded environment was discouraging. The walk to high school was shorter, about 25 minutes and more pleasant. Both offered the opportunity to become more aware of daily lives of fellow citizens, and motivated me to complete my education to serve them. On the way to high school, I recall seeing a famous poem engraved above the door of a medical clinic, stating, "Those who give in kindness and work for the good of fellow citizens will have their names and kindness remembered forever". A philanthropic family had built and dedicated several such facilities to serve the citizens of Shiraz. The most difficult time in my life was the loss of my mother at the age of 58, who had been my mentor and motivator.

My academic career was less than a decade long, but very rewarding professionally. I worked with more than 25 students, postdoctoral fellows and visiting scholars from US, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, South America and the former Soviet Union during this period. This helped shape my great interest in international scientific partnerships and collaboration throughout the rest of my career. The teaching, mentoring and training of students were very rewarding. During the last two years of my academic career, I coordinated a major international project sponsored by NASA that engaged more than 200 scientists from around the world to study the relationship between the earth's surface and atmosphere with the aid of a variety technologies including airplanes and satellites. The data collected for this project were used by thousands of scientists worldwide, and the resulting scientific knowledge shaped some of the next generation sensors and satellites that NASA developed and launched into space during the ensuing decades.

As chief scientist for the Earth Observing System (EOS) at NASA from 1992 to 1998, you developed a communication and outreach strategy promoting the EOS program to the public, the U.S. Congress, and international scientific organizations that still exists today. Can you tell us more about it?

I joined NASA as a Distinguished Visiting Scientist through the California Institute of Technology/Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California in 1987, and worked in the Earth Science Division of the Office of Space Sciences and Applications at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. My main assignment upon arrival was to establish two new research programs: the first focused on using the fundamental principles of physics and computer models to interpret signals detected and collected by sensors on board aircrafts and satellites, while the second focused on investigating the role of land-surface and biologically controlled water and energy exchange between land surface and the atmosphere. These efforts helped me gain a deeper appreciation for the value of collaboration among scientists and experts from multiple disciplines to solve complex scientific and technical problems, and prepared me well for my next assignment at NASA.

In 2002, I was appointed as Chief Scientist for the NASA Mission to Planet Earth, and NASA Earth Observing System (EOS) program. My responsibilities included; 1) developing the science strategy and priorities for EOS to secure its long-term funding by the U.S. Government; 2) establishing an interdisciplinary research funding program to attract and engage scientists in EOS; and 3) a communication and outreach strategy for attracting the public interest and support for EOS. These tasks provided greater opportunity to work with a wide spectrum of audience (e.g. scientists, educators, students, public), requiring equally a wide variety of communication means and approaches. I enjoyed immensely the time I spent in classrooms, scientific and technical events, and public forum to speak about the scientific and technical challenges and opportunities that EOS offered to US and the world.

From 1998 to 2004, you served as associate administrator for NASA's Office of Earth Science. In this capacity, you had overall scientific, technical, programmatic, and organization management responsibility for Earth science, with an annual budget greater than $1.5 billion. During this period, the program developed and successfully launched 15 Earth observing satellites and developed a comprehensive, multidisciplinary data and information system (-EOSDIS) that enabled the use of data from these satellites by more than two million users. Please share with us what you have done.

I was appointed as the Associate Administrator for Office of Earth Science in 2008. During my tenure, the office developed and successfully launched 15 of EOS satellites, and developed a comprehensive and multidisciplinary data and information management system that enabled the use of observations and data from EOS by more than two million users. We initiated the development of 10 more satellites for the following decade.

My next assignment at NASA was to serve as the Deputy Administrator of the Science Directorate and to oversee more than 250 employees and an annual budget of about $5.5 billion which covered: 1) more than 50 robotic satellites studying the entire solar system; 2) sponsoring scientific research, modeling and data analysis; 3) developing the next generation of advanced sensors and satellites; and 4) developing and operating multi-disciplinary communication networks, data and information management systems, and a wide range of airborne and suborbital research facilities at NASA Centers, U.S. universities, and major centers in the U.S. and abroad. I oversaw the design and development of more than 30 new and highly innovative robotic satellites for launch to explore Mars, Pluto, and rest of our solar system and universe in the ensuing decades.

You have been as deputy administrator for the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2006 to 2008, where you were responsible for management and oversight of a $250 million portfolio of environment and natural resources research projects located at numerous laboratories throughout the United States. Please share with us your achievement is this period.

I left NASA in late 2005 to serve as a Deputy Administrator with Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (ARS/USDA). I was responsible for management and oversight of a portfolio of environment and natural resources research programs and projects located at a large number of laboratories and centers throughout the U.S. I served as a focal point and member of a team of experts who developed the U.S. Energy Independence and Security plan, a U.S. Presidential initiative in 2007. This provided a major opportunity to expand the research and development programs of ARS/USDA that focus on bio-based energy (e.g. fuels and power), and other products (e.g. enzymes, chemicals, vitamins, oils), from agricultural products. This required working closely with a combination of agriculture, biochemist, energy experts and engineers. A companion set of research programs explored the development methodologies for efficient and effective use of water, soil and nutrients in agricultural systems for producing food, fiber and energy from such systems.

I accepted an international assignment in 2008 to serve as the Director of the World Climate Research Program (WCRP), whose mission is to "understand and predict Earth's climate system" for use in an increasing range of practical applications by decision makers worldwide. The WCRP's activities are carried out by its major project that were distributed globally in the USA, UK, China, Norway, India and Switzerland with a network of several thousands of scientists from more than 85 countries.

The main motivation for participation of scientists in the WCRP is the need for addressing complex scientific challenges that require capabilities and resources transcending individual nations and organizations. The changes constituted in the Program under my leadership during the past five years are: 1) a major focus on regional, seasonal and decade-long aspects of climate research, modeling and prediction; 2) a greater emphasis on synthesis, analysis and translation of the state of climate science and information for use in adaptation planning, risk management and socioeconomic development; 3) enhancing the use of observations in conjunction with Earth system computer models, and in analysis and re-analyses of past and present state of the Earth's climate system; and 4) a focus on building research and analysis capacity in developing regions (e.g. Africa, South Asia).

The one role that you cherish most is your contribution to the NASA education programs such as the Earth system science fellowship, New Investigators program, and National Earth System Science curriculum and education standards. You have a keen desire to educate the next generation of Earth Scientists. Is that because you believe that young leaders emerging who will be the next generation will build new field of addressing climate security as a global challenge?

I brought my passion for teaching and education from my short academic career to NASA, and later on to WCRP. I established the NASA Earth System Science graduate student fellowship program to attract students with strong math, physics and basic sciences backgrounds to focus their PhD research and training on interdisciplinary field of Earth system science at U.S. universities. This program has graduated several thousand early career scientists, who are now serving as advisors and mentors to future generations of fellowship applicants and recipients. I assisted in establishing the K-12 Earth System Science education program, and the NASA-sponsored development of introductory and advanced Earth System Science courses at more than 60 major U.S. universities and two-year colleges nationwide. We envisioned a need for this next generation of scientists and experts to pursue a career in Earth system science, a pioneering field of science promoted by NASA at that time, and also future U.S. and global scholars and teachers who are able to take full advantage of the EOS capabilities for study of Earth and its environment. This idea of investing in generation of scientists, engineers and technology experts permeated every aspect of NASA science programs.

Your devotion to the next generation of Earth scientists is very impressive. Have you established Earth System Science Fellowship Program in Iran? Would you like to run such a program for Iranians?

Later on during my tenure at WCRP, we sponsored several hundred post-graduates and early career scientists, especially from developing nations/regions, to ensure sustained support and engagement of international experts in Earth and environmental sciences in the future. It was through this program that we were able to reach out to early career scientists worldwide, including Iranian scholars, to engage them more actively in complex science projects that require by necessity international cooperation. Quite often, U.S. and European countries and agencies sponsored participation of these scientists in such activities, regardless of the prevailing political tensions at the time. Notable were cooperation of scientists from Russia, Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa working on topics such as climate change, ozone depletion, ocean warming and acidification, warming of polar regions, etc., a coalition of scientists without borders working on most urgent scientific topics in service to global citizens.

I do hope my scientific, technical and educational contributions in some ways have benefited my birth country, Iran, and its affectionate and hospitable citizens. My childhood dream of serving the public still remains with me to this date. I do hope and wish to be able to fulfill this dream, as I imagine this to be the case for every Iranian born citizens throughout the world.

I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to serve society in ways not imagined or planned, throughout my professional career.