By Gillen Curren, CPO CEE Division
This article continues a series of interviews with NOAA Climate Program Office (CPO) employees and CPO-funded scientists in celebration of Women’s History Month.
Morgan in Bruges, Belgium in 2022
Morgan Zabow is a climate and health communications and outreach coordinator. She works as part of the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) and NOAA’s One Health Initiative teams. Morgan works with communities across the U.S. to map heat in their neighborhoods as part of an urban heat island mapping program. After the process of using citizen science to map heat has been completed, she helps these communities to create equitable cooling solutions. Morgan also was part of the team that created Heat.gov and is deeply involved in using social media and other communication tools to stress the importance of heat and health.
“One of the most important things that I have learned during my government service is you have to listen to what the community needs, ” Morgan says. “Because if you just tell them exactly what they need, then you’re not listening. I have made sure in my time here that we have a true dialogue with every partner so that we are able to actually create change and build trust in those communities.”
Morgan presenting Heat.gov at the NOAA booth at AMS this past January. Credit: Rafael DeAmeller
Our conversation follows.
Could you talk about your path in getting to this point in your career?
I went through most of my undergraduate experience thinking I would be a doctor. But I realized I wanted to do health on a community scale instead of an individual scale. My start with community health work was in a community health fellowship in Alabama that focused on mental health. During that experience, I got to learn the power of community, integrating into the community, and building community relationships. I felt that science sometimes has the tendency to “parachute” into a community. In other words, scientists leave once they are done collecting their data and don’t continue to provide support to the community. I wanted to be involved in work that would really be focused on the community, so I got my master’s in Public Health from Emory University, where I first became interested in climate and health. After I graduated, I wanted a job that did climate and health, which is exactly what I’m doing now.
Can you talk about the intersection between heat and health and environmental justice issues?
Absolutely. There are a lot of populations who are more impacted by extreme heat, like the homeless, the incarcerated, and low-income communities. For example, we mapped the Bronx and Manhattan in 2021 and they were able to use their data to show where the hottest communities were, and they overlaid that data with historical redlining. They found areas that the historically redlined areas were the hottest in the Bronx and Manhattan. And in a lot of those cases, those areas had lower tree canopy. The resources aren’t there to make sure that those communities are being protected.
We work with communities to make sure that the cooling solutions implemented are based on the data so that they can see where those hottest areas are, and that the solutions that they implement are equitable, whether it’s increasing tree planting in those areas, or it’s adding cooling centers to those areas. These cooling centers are useful for people who don’t have transportation to go somewhere outside their community or don’t have air conditioning in their homes. They can go to a centrally located place in their community, like a library or a school, where they can get some relief on hot days.
For me, one of the most fulfilling parts of this job is knowing that this program and the data that we’re helping to produce with these communities is all a citizen science project. In a lot of these programs, they’re making sure that the people who are volunteering are reflective of their communities. They’re making the effort to reach out to populations that are more disproportionately impacted, so they can learn about heat and health in their community and why they are more impacted by heat.
These images from the NIHHIS Urban Heat Island Mapping Campaign in Las Cruces, NM, show how the temperature can differ greatly (by 44.5 °F) between shaded grass and exposed pavement. Credit: David DuBois.
What is your favorite memory of the Urban Heat Island (UHI) campaigns?
Getting to participate in the Montgomery County Maryland Campaign was great, because for the past year I had been working on these campaigns, getting to know all of the organizers, knowing the ins and outs of how it works, and then I actually got to be a part of it. I met members of the community, who were so concerned about heat and health in their communities, and wanted to learn more about why some of their neighborhoods were hotter than others. During the Montgomery County Maryland campaign, I got to ride along in the car with a father and son, and it was great seeing his excitement about science. It was really inspiring to see a younger generation of people excited about science, and the way that the community organized around this event was inspiring as well. Over 400 people signed up to be volunteers, which just really goes to show how involved people are in their community and how they want to implement cooling solutions and make their community a better place.
Morgan with Nicholas Mullenix at the Montgomery County MD UHI campaign.
What gives you hope in regard to the work you do with NOAA?
What gives me hope in this field is seeing the level of passion and dedication that people in NOAA have. It can be hard working in climate and health. Getting to work with people who have been in this field for more than 20 years and are still so dedicated to the work they do is really inspiring, and gives me hope that there are going to be even more people joining the field who are just as passionate about climate and health.
What are some challenges you have faced this year? How have you been able to adapt?
A lot of people don’t realize the problem of extreme heat–yet it is the number one weather-related cause of death for people in the United States. We are trying to find new innovative ways to educate people, like through social media campaigns. We’re trying to find the short, simple messages that work best for people to really understand the problem. We worked with the EPA and developed the “Let’s talk about heat challenge.” It was an innovative way to get people to educate their communities about extreme heat.
What experience or advice do you feel is helpful when you’re faced with setbacks?
Everyone has been through so much in the past couple of years. I think that we have all realized we are a lot more resilient than we think we are. So I try to remember that times have been tougher, that there’s periods where everything that we think we know and what we are doing completely stops and we are able to adapt and recover to the next thing.
What do you feel the future of women in climate resilience/heat and health should look like?
For women in particular, I would hope that there’s more women in leadership positions in the climate health sphere. One great example of that is the chief heat offices that are being implemented in the U.S. and also internationally. Currently, the chief heat officers for Miami-Dade County and the City of Los Angeles are women. I think it’s so great to be able to see women in these positions of leadership because other women and young girls are seeing these women in these positions and they learn that they could do something like that one day.
Whether it’s education at the K-12 and university level or the opportunities with internships and fellowships in this space, I would definitely want to see more opportunities so people can get exposed and have these opportunities to work in climate resilience, climate and health positions, and then get those leadership positions.
Can you talk about some female mentors you’ve had throughout your career?
There are so many women in climate health making so much difference, but I would like to highlight my supervisor Juli Trtanj. She has been in the climate and health game for 30 years and she is a top expert in it. I am constantly learning from her. Like I talked about earlier, some cities are implementing chief heat officers. Jane Gilbert is the chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County. She is implementing new cooling solutions and is always thinking about how to help people.
What advice would you give to your younger self or to a woman just starting out in her career?
I think the best advice is be open to all of the opportunities and experiences that you come across. I got really pigeon-holed into medicine in high school and undergrad because I thought I was going to be a doctor. Towards the end of my undergrad, I started taking more classes outside of that, and it really opened my eyes. But if I hadn’t taken those classes and hadn’t taken opportunities and gotten involved with organizations then I wouldn’t have found I enjoyed the climate and health field. Take advantage of opportunities and experiences that come your way because I think you’ll find new passions that maybe you wouldn’t have before.
How has your idea of success changed over the course of your career?
On a personal level, I’ll say my idea of success has changed a lot. What I now view as successful is that I am passionate about what I’m doing in my career. I think it is as simple as finding happiness, and I don’t think that’s a simple answer in any way, but it’s something that I wouldn’t have viewed as a major factor of success ten years ago. Professionally, increased education and public awareness about the problem of heat would definitely be a success. Additionally, working with as many regions and communities as we possibly can to help protect people from extreme heat would be a success. One of the big things that we focus on is working with people who are disproportionately impacted by heat. So I think success in that aspect is making sure that people are working with those populations to make sure that they are more protected from heat.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
When I was younger, I used to look so far out and have all of these five, ten, twenty-year plans of what my life was going to look like. And while I think it’s great to have a lot of long-term goals, I think people can get so fixated on those goals that sometimes they miss a lot of things along the way, and life happens and derails those goals sometimes. I don’t look twenty years down the road anymore; I focus on the present. I definitely hope that I will continue to work in the climate health space for as long as I possibly can. I know that this is my life’s passion and I want to continue addressing it, whether it’s continuing to work at the federal level or it’s working at a community level again.
For our urban heat island mapping team, I hope that we can map as many communities as possible across the country and internationally to make sure that those communities know what the risk is, and that they can implement equitable cooling solutions. I really want to reach regions and parts of the world that we haven’t before.
With our One Health team, we’re having a summit in July and we are hoping to convene as many NOAA employees as possible to really understand what NOAA’s capacity is in the health space and what people are currently doing in that space. I really hope that we can expand knowledge on health work and spread awareness that while NOAA isn’t necessarily seen as a health agency, there is so much health work being done within this agency. Even if people don’t think that their work is directly related to health, almost everything that people do in NOAA is indirectly tied to health in some way.
Special thanks to Morgan Zabow for participating in this interview for Women’s History Month at NOAA.