Colette Heald on the NOAA Atmospheric Chemistry Carbon Cycle and Climate Program and Her Career

NOAA Research
Wednesday, March 27, 2019

For Women's Month, NOAA profiles Heald on her academic interests, as well as motivations and challenges to pursuing her research.

Read this story at NOAA.

Dr. Colette Heald is a professor at MIT in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering [with an appointment in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS)] and is the head of the Atmospheric Chemistry and Composition Modeling Group. She is also a Principal Investigator (PI) funded by NOAA Research’s Atmospheric Chemistry Carbon Cycle and Climate (AC4) Program. Her research focuses on modeling aerosols and trace gases in the atmosphere and thinking about how they interact with the earth system.

What projects/research are you working on now? 

One of [the modeling group’s] current projects funded by AC4 is thinking about the uncertainties surrounding how smoke from fires impacts air quality and climate. Fires are a big topic of interest in the atmospheric chemistry community right now, given that fire frequency and severity has been increasing in North America because of climate change. We are finding that, although fire emissions estimates are based on satellite observations, there is a huge range in the estimated smoke released into the atmosphere. This complicates our ability to understand how fires impact visibility, human health, and the radiative balance of the planet. 

What drew you to this career or field?

I was studying engineering physics as an undergrad and I was looking for a topic that inspired me. I was drawn to atmospheric chemistry by the combination of applying deep scientific knowledge to real-world environmental problems that affect people’s lives. I have also really enjoyed the opportunity to learn about new and different topics (e.g. aerobiology, crop modeling, machine learning) and integrate that knowledge in our research projects. I love that science can be creative!

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Working with my graduate students and postdocs — having the opportunity to learn new ideas from them and mentoring them to become better scientists is a gift that I get to enjoy every day!

What was the best advice ever given to you that helped you become successful? 

The best advice I ever got was: “Don’t let anyone else define your success." I have always tried to work on research that I cared about, and make decisions that fit the kind of person that I am and the career that I want. That’s not always easy in a career that has lots of pressure to be impressive, particularly at the early stages of a faculty career. I’m fortunate that someone pointed this out to me early and I saved myself a lot of energy not trying to turn myself into someone I’m not!  

What challenges have you faced as a woman in your career/field, or in general, and how have you overcome them?

As a woman, I think the most significant pervasive challenge for me has been having so few role models that look (and think!) like me! I have been fortunate to have a group of wonderful women colleagues at the same career stage that I have looked to for advice and support over the years. 

What’s been your favorite (or proudest) moment in your career so far? 

My proudest moment was when I was awarded the Macelwane Medal from the American Geophysical Union. It is an honor to be nominated by colleagues in the community for an award, and it was humbling to think about all the great scientists (especially women!) who haven’t always received the recognition they deserved. It was also one of my favorite moments of my career because I was able to celebrate the event with my group of women friends/colleagues!

What advice would you give to a woman just starting out in her career?

For women just starting their career, I would tell them to be confident and to try to find mentors to support and encourage them along the way.