Eugenia Kalnay

Eugenia Kalnay

Title
Environmental Engineer
Organization
University of Maryland
Location
MD
Eugenia Kalnay
Ask a Question:
Required field
Enter the code shown: (only upper case)

Biography

I currently hold the title “Distinguished University Professor” in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland, which I chaired before. Before coming to Maryland, I had an endowed chair (Robert E. Lowry Chair in Meteorology) at the University of Oklahoma (1998-1999).

From 1987-1997 I was Director of the Environmental Modeling Center of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) in Camp Springs, Md. All the computer models for the National Weather Service and private forecasts are generated at this center. During my tenure there we improved the quality of national weather forecasts: currently a 3-day forecast is as accurate (on the average) as a 1-day forecast was 20 years ago! From 1979 to 1986 I was a Senior Scientist and then Branch Head at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Meteorology is applied physics/engineering. My specialty, numerical weather prediction (the computer modeling of the atmosphere), allows me to work in science and to do something useful to mankind at the same time. Another area of research in atmospheric sciences that I work on, perhaps even more important for mankind, is studying climate change and providing guidance on what we can do to avoid a disaster for our children and grandchildren.

I got my undergraduate degree at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and my Ph.D. at MIT (where I was the first woman to get a doctorate in Meteorology, and the first student to get pregnant!). I was an assistant professor at the University of Montevideo, Uruguay, and then back at MIT, where I left in 1979 as an associate professor. I then worked at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center for 8 years.

I got my start in meteorology in an unusual way: my mother changed my major from physics to meteorology because she found there were scholarships available. My mother was very important to my career and research: she wanted me to be a scholar and put me through school (my father died when I was 14). My undergraduate major professor in Buenos Aires, Rolando Garcia, had a tremendous influence on me, and he contacted Professor Jule G. Charney, from MIT, who kindly offered me a research assistantship, and became my major professor for my PhD. It is impossible to underestimate the influence that they had on me.

Perhaps the most challenging problem I faced was when I became Branch Head at NASA/Goddard, and I had to lead a bunch of very strong, male scientists. I had to develop a style of management based on consensus, very different from my predecessor who was much more autocratic. But, to my surprise, it worked very well, and I have used consensus ever since. Another challenging problem was to be the director of about 70 scientists at NCEP and to find the time to continue doing productive research. I feel that I have achieved a lot at NASA and especially at NCEP.

So, for the rest of my career, I would like to contribute to the quality of education at the University of Maryland - and to continue doing research, which is essential for my own happiness. I am proud that during my career I have nurtured many young scientists, both men and women that have moved on to great careers of their own. I have found that encouragement and enthusiasm for other people's achievements, which doesn't cost any money, goes a long way in making organizations better.

I would suggest that any young woman interested in engineering should acquire a strong background in sciences, math, computer science and physics. But most importantly, you should work in areas that you enjoy. I think money and recognition are of secondary importance, and they will come on their own if you like what you are doing. I would also mention that you have to train yourself to speak clearly and forcefully, and - without being pushy - not allow yourself to be shut off or be excessively modest.

I think that I have been lucky in having a strong, secure husband, who was supportive and encourages me to take risks and face challenges. Having a child has also been a major source of joy (and occasional despair). I felt guilty sometimes for not ever being a full-time mother, but overall I know it has been better for my son to have a happy, satisfied part-time mother.

Answers by Dr. Eugenia Kalnay

Dear EngineerGirl,

When I was a student there was no such a career as Environmental Engineer (I studied Meteorology).

I think it is great that you have that opportunity now!

As I said in my life story, the most important thing to do well in a field is to like the field, so that you will be able to work with passion. I think that engineering is as good paying a field as any other area. If you get a job that you like, I am sure that you will be able to support your family.

 With best wishes,

Eugenia

Dear Maggie: I would say that different types of environmental engineering require different levels of math: for example, modeling (which is what I do) is usually heavy in math, whereas bio-environmental engineering is more intuitive and observationally based, and is mathematically much softer. So, go for it! It would always be good to have a good calculus 1 foundation but not necessarily calculus 3. Eugenia

Dear Tina: I think enviro-engineering is really a great area to work, but actually I am not familiar with any school having that specific focus. I assume you are an undergraduate, so I would suggest that you take as many courses in engineering and environmental sciences (and math) as possible, and develop your own enviro-engineering curriculum. Later in graduate school you can continue along the same path, or go to a school that is strong in atmospheric, oceanic, hydrological and geological sciences, and also strong in hydrological engineering. It is my experience at the University of Maryland, which is an example of such school, that students will be encouraged to do multidisciplinary studies. For example we have several joint students between our Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Department and Chemistry, with a number of Ph. D.'s in atmospheric and oceanic chemistry. Similarly we have a number of Applied Math students that did their theses in atmospheric sciences. I am affiliated with ESSIC, the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, and with the School of Engineering, as well as our Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Department. Let me know if this answers your most interesting question!