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Women’s History Month: A Conversation with Dr. Annarita Mariotti

Dr. Annarita Mariotti
Credit: Dr. Annarita Mariotti

The article continues a series of interviews with NOAA Climate Program Office (CPO) employees and CPO-funded scientists in celebration of Women’s History Month.

Dr. Annarita Mariotti is an accomplished climate scientist with more than twenty years of research experience and numerous publications. Born in Italy, she speaks Italian, English, and French fluently and is currently learning Mandarin Chinese. Dr. Mariotti completed a master’s degree in physics in Rome and a PhD in meteorology in Paris. Her PhD focused on the dynamics of the stratospheric polar vortex and how it influences the ozone hole. During her career, she has criss-crossed continents, working as a researcher in academia, a program director at CPO, a science diplomat in China, and a policy advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). She is now a senior advisor and scientist at CPO.

Read the full interview below.

Can you tell me about your career path? How did you get into climate science?

After I finished my PhD, I spent time at University of California, Los Angeles doing a post-doc on stratospheric dynamics. Soon after that, I worked at the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) in Italy for several years. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I transitioned into climate science proper. My first climate-focused research project examined the basic functioning and trends of the water cycle in the Mediterranean region. That contributed to a whole line of new regional climate variability research under HYMEX (Hydrological Cycle in the Mediterranean Experiment) and also CLIVAR. I examined things like the impacts of phenomena such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation on seasonal variability and predictability of precipitation, river flow, etc. It was highly influential.

I looked for a job in the D.C. area because my husband started to work at University of Maryland (UMD) as a professor. That’s when I found a research scientist position at the UMD Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) working with Dr. Phil Arkin, the deputy director. I explored the global water cycle, causes of its variability, and the impacts on oceans and ecosystems. Also, I continued to focus on decadal variability and predictability in the Mediterranean region and long-term climate change projections. My research highlighted that this region is one of the hotspots of climate change, with significant impacts on the water cycle and beyond. I really enjoyed hands-on research and felt it was important to provide a sound basis for policy.

How did you start with NOAA?

I always enjoyed thinking broadly and strategically. It was around 2005 when the opportunity to move into program management presented itself. I learned that Dr. Jin Huang at the NOAA Climate Program Office (then called the Office of Global Programs) was looking for an associate program manager. I had several ongoing research projects and wasn’t quite ready to quit research. So I was still doing my own research, but part-time I started to work with Jin, organizing meetings and reviewing progress reports. This work gave me the perspective I was longing for, and I really enjoyed it.

Did your research career help with program management? Did you continue to publish? 

Absolutely. A firsthand experience at research gave me in-depth subject matter expertise for my program management work. It helped me understand how research works and also relate with scientists applying for funding. It was so important to keep me grounded even after I became a federal program manager, I continued to do collaborative research and publish with people outside the sphere of my program. In that sense, I am a bit of an anomaly among program managers.

The nature of what I publish now is different. When I was focusing on research, I was the lead author on research projects and papers. As I transitioned into science management and policy, my publications have been enterprise-wide overviews and perspectives. I learned a lot as I collaborated with others on these projects.

Can you tell me about your detail to the White House OSTP? How did you get this opportunity?

For several years I helped to develop and lead the Modeling, Analysis, Predictions and Projection Program at CPO. After a few years, I felt hungry to have a better understanding of science policy–how the sausage is made, the why of certain policy choices. I had just come back from China where I worked as an Embassy Science Fellow, and enrolled in the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium in 2019. While there, I bumped into Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, who at the time was director of OSTP and looking for someone with expertise in predictability and climate. So it was totally fortuitous.

Annarita Embassy Science Fellow in China visiting an ocean buoy technology center.

Image Credit: Dr. Annarita Mariotti

I spent two and a half years on detail to OSTP in various policy roles across two presidential administrations. My sense of purpose drove me to continue making progress on climate science and to lead several policy projects. It took guts and stamina. My past publication record and scientific community standing were critically important in this changing landscape – it was clear what I was interested in and how I would contribute.

Can you provide examples of projects you did there that stood out to you throughout your NOAA detail to OSTP? 

Overall, it was an incredible experience. I worked on a broad range of topics, from Earth system science to information and service applications to economic innovation. I am very happy that all the policy priorities I worked on continued across administrations – that’s unusual. One project focused on Earth system predictability and why it is important to think about forecasting across timescales. I led an interagency group that developed a strategy on this topic with broad engagement of the science community.

I also led the interagency team involved in reorganizing the Federal Meteorological enterprise to advance meteorological services – now under the Interagency Council for Advancing Meteorological Services (ICAMS). This enterprise structure had been in place for more than 50 years and nobody dared to touch it until the OSTP director decided to reorganize it from scratch.

Later in my detail, I worked with Dr. Jane Lubchenco, former NOAA Administrator, who came to lead the OSTP Climate and Environment team. I worked on climate services and contributed to the climate services report in response to the Executive Order 14008 to improve climate services information for the public. I’m still involved with this mission now, working at an interagency level. Serving as the OSTP Assistant Director for Climate Science, Modeling and Predictions, I pulled together leaders across the community to write a perspective piece that is now under review in a peer-reviewed journal.

Annarita during her OSTP detail at an event on the White House South Lawn. 

Image Credit: Dr. Annarita Mariotti

During the last few months of my detail, I stretched into a new policy area to address the climate problem at a systems level, considering the interplay with natural and human systems, and the linkages between climate, biodiversity, and waste crises. I started to work with the OSTP Energy Team led by Dr. Sally Benson on innovation to reach net-zero climate goals. I helped to  elevate circular economy innovation to its current place among the top five climate mitigation game-changer priorities.

Can you speak to the importance of relationship building? What led you to pioneer many “first of a kind” initiatives? 

Relationship building is very important. To me, it means understanding what other people care about and how to work with them. What’s really hard, but important, is keeping those relationships going even when we disagree.

Throughout my career I had different roles. I always try to speak one-on-one with people to understand their perspective, and to the largest extent, I really try to address what others care about. I try to build a comfort level such that we can have a smooth conversation, and that means compromising as well as being persistent.

When I have a vision for how things can be done better, I pursue that. I find meaning in pushing for innovation and getting people on board. Fundamentally, people trust my intent. I don’t always get things right, but they know that I care about what I do and can make stuff happen through collaboration. But again, it starts with relationships and trust.

Where do you see the future of climate science going?

It’s science informing action. How do we put science into practice so that we can address the climate mitigation and adaptation issues? This doesn’t mean it’s all applied science. It’s the foundational science, pushing the envelope on new types of observations and increasingly realistic models and predictions. So I see climate science being increasingly focused on a spectrum of activities that are focused on societal challenges. There are incredible opportunities and value in making strides on climate science to support climate services.

What advice would you have for young scientists, especially women scientists interested in getting into climate science? 

With climate science, there’s so much we need to do that it really depends on what you are interested in. It doesn’t matter where you start; if you have solid foundations and are persistent, you can always get to do what you’re interested in. There are so many ways to get involved with interesting stuff. Mine was not a linear path at all; geomagnetism, stratospheric dynamics, and finally climate. Then, I cut across from active research to management, and science diplomacy and policy. I think it’s important to work with passion and purpose, and be committed to whatever you get into. Learn from it and then you can move on and do other stuff. That’s always been my mantra.

Special thanks to Dr. Annarita Mariotti for participating in this interview for Women’s History Month at NOAA.

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