Skip to main content

For climate and energy solutions, it's a matter of scale

Dr. Susan Avery, noted atmospheric physicist, brings her pioneering career to the ExxonMobil board.

High up in the atmosphere, well beyond the reach of regular aircraft, the wind is always blowing.

Dr. Susan Avery, newly elected to the ExxonMobil board of directors, knows this lofty space well. As an atmospheric physicist, she led breakthrough research that continues to aid the world’s understanding of the upper atmosphere.

“What goes on in the upper atmosphere 20 to 70 miles above the earth’s surface impacts our lives below, and we’re still learning about it,” Avery says. “A lot of the circulation systems up there are coupled with weather systems in the lower atmosphere. Distortions caused by solar disturbances as well as atmospheric turbulence in the upper atmosphere can also impact satellite, navigation and radio communications, affecting power systems, energy distribution, GPSs and other vital communications.”

Kitchen problem-solving

Avery’s journey into pioneering atmospheric research began around the kitchen table at home in Michigan with her dad, an electrical engineer for Michigan Consolidated Gas Co.

“Understanding that math is the language of science and engineering, my dad insisted that my brother, sister and I know how to do ‘story problems.’ So Dad led us through exercises to find a mathematical solution. For example, if a storm is coming, producing a certain pressure change, what will the wind speed be? We each had definitely earned our stripes in disciplined thinking by the time we entered college.”

Avery completed her undergraduate studies at Michigan State University, which her mom – one of the first women to receive a degree in bacteriology – dad, aunts and uncles, and sisters and cousins also attended. Upon graduation, she married James Avery, a computer science major, and they entered graduate school together at the University of Illinois. There, she discovered she disliked quantum mechanics but came to appreciate the value of interdisciplinary research and academics.

Science to opera

“I began to explore how I could use physics in another area of study. There was a fledgling atmospheric science program connected to the physics department, but it was also affiliated with the engineering school. Marvin Geller, who has become a leading atmospheric scientist, welcomed me in as my adviser. He encouraged me to think beyond conventional research and academic boundaries and use all of my talents fully.”

Those talents included singing – and not just everyday singing. Avery performed in two operas, “Manon” and “The Merry Widow.” She also sang in choirs and played the flute.

Bouncing off meteors

Susan Avery, Board of Directors
Photo — Board Director Dr. Susan Avery

Avery’s interdisciplinary journey continued after she received her Ph.D. in atmospheric physics. She joined the electrical engineering department at Illinois as an assistant professor. There, she pioneered using radar technology to measure winds in the upper atmosphere, particularly the little-understood transition zone between the ionized and nonionized regions.

“The technology involves bouncing radar signals off the ionized trails of tiny meteors that had burned up, and using the resulting Doppler shift [change in signal frequency] from the transmitter to the return signal to measure wind velocity,” she explains.

In 1982, Avery received a fellowship from the National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to teach and continue her research at the University of Colorado. With seven institutes, the university was (and continues to be) an important center for advances in atmospheric and space science.

“The rich multidisciplinary environment – with atmospheric physicists, chemists, biologists, geologists, engineers and others working together – further shaped my future.”

Avery’s continuing research into her meteor radar technique and the need to test it at longer distances led to international partnerships with other scientists. She eventually discovered how to measure wind in the upper atmosphere in remote equatorial and polar regions with radar systems that were smaller, less expensive and required less maintenance. She and her team also licensed a meteor radar that could measure the lower and upper atmospheres simultaneously.

Social contract shift

In 1994, Avery became director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado. The institute, the largest of NOAA’s cooperative institutes, includes more than 800 scientists, staff and students devoted to improving understanding of the earth and its environment. Its scientists produce an average of 500 peer-reviewed publications annually.

“At the time I became director, science’s social contract with society had begun to shift from Cold War military defense to something much broader,” she says. “Awareness of how science impacted everyday lives was evolving. Research organizations were beginning to respond accordingly, including greater efforts to expand scientific literacy. Among other efforts, we launched a program to improve K-12 science teaching and expose teachers to the scientific research environment.

“In addition, we developed a new center devoted to the interface of science with policy, as well as a new program on climate variability and change and its impact on western water. I am pleased that all of these initiatives are now part of the ongoing culture of CIRES – one that balances interaction with stakeholders with the need for science information.”

From 2008 to 2015, Avery was president and director of the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, where she continued to build public scientific awareness of the ocean and its connectivity to everyone.

The need for scale

At ExxonMobil, Avery looks forward to lending her science and engineering perspective. She is particularly interested in supporting ExxonMobil’s leadership and the work that the company is doing to bring new technology solutions for climate and energy issues to scale, including carbon capture and sequestration and biofuels, so they can do the most good.

“Bringing solutions to scale is what the private sector can do best. Academia and nonprofits can make significant contributions, but they simply don’t have the horsepower that the industry does.”

Avery adds that there’s also a key need for governments to return to funding basic science research, as they have done in the past.

“Governments have the resources that could generate the thousands of ideas, from which a few will provide solutions. ExxonMobil is an industry leader in basic science research, but can’t do it all,” she says.

“There’s no doubt that the best and timeliest solutions for climate and energy will come with industry, academia, environmental nonprofits and government all working together.”