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Women’s History Month: A Conversation with LuAnn Dahlman

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By: Melissa DeFrancesco

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.

LuAnn Dahlman is a core member of NOAA CPO’s Communication, Education, and Engagement Division (CEE) Division. In her role as writer, editor, and user advocate, LuAnn applies her knowledge and passion for accessible and understandable data to NOAA’s climate resilience resources such as the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, Climate Mapping for Resilience Adaptation (CMRA) portal, and Climate Explorer. After studying geology in college, LuAnn obtained her teaching certificate and taught high school science for seven years. Lessons from her background in education continue to inform the work she does today.

“I learned early on that every person brings a slightly different perspective when they’re trying to learn something. While some people are abstract learners, other people require a more hands-on approach: building physical models, seeing illustrations, those sorts of things. I really love figuring out ways to help everybody learn.”

In addition to being an accomplished educator and science communicator, LuAnn is an enthusiastic outdoorswoman who enjoys daily hikes in the Arizona desert and adding to her impressive rock collection.

Our conversation follows.

Tell me about your career path. How did you become a climate science communicator?

As an undergraduate in the 1980s, I expected to go directly from my oil company internship into a career in geology. When demand for geologists dropped like a rock (pun intended), I went back to school to learn how to teach. For seven years, I taught Earth Science and Chemistry to high school students. Teaching is still the hardest job I’ve ever loved! While I was teaching, a summer program for teachers at the University of Arizona offered me the tools and knowledge to introduce digital image analysis to my students. This gave me a way to incorporate newly available satellite imagery and digital elevation models into my teaching. I was quickly sold on using data for learning, and I used the technology as a springboard to change careers: I became a curriculum developer and a teacher of teachers. In this role, I contributed to data-focused projects involving satellite imagery, GIS, and GPS. In 2008, I was hired as a contractor in NOAA’s Climate Program Office. One of the first tasks I contributed to here was working with people across NOAA to envision, build, and launch

How did growing up in Arizona inform your environmental values?

I learned to love the outdoors—even the heat!—by spending lots of time exploring and camping in deserts, mountains, and canyons. From a young age, my family was involved in Camp Fire Girls, so I learned outdoor skills and a deep respect for nature.

Where is your favorite outdoor place in the state?

Though the scenery is less iconic than at the Grand Canyon or Sedona, the lower Salt River just east of Phoenix is one of my favorite places in the state. Over time, the river and its tributaries have delivered an incredible array of beautifully rounded rocks to the area. For me, every rock tells a story: rocks are like entries in nature’s scrapbook, keeping a record of the processes that formed them. I have to admit I’m a little obsessed! I’ve got rocks all over in my office and around my home. For me, they’re not only interesting, they’re also beautiful. For people who aren’t as excited about rocks as I am, the lower Salt River area also has wildflowers (putting on a super bloom this year!), bald eagles, and a growing population of wild (feral) horses to watch. During summer, you can float down the river in an inner tube and watch it all go past. It’s the closest thing Arizona has to a beach.
Some rocks from LuAnn's collection
Some rocks from LuAnn’s collection
Image credit: LuAnn Dahlman

Tell me more about your studies of geology. How does it relate to the work you do now?

I was definitely in the minority studying a physical science in college—it was mostly men at the time. There were no female professors and very few female graduate students, so going for an advanced degree in geology didn't seem like a viable option. I wound up going straight to work instead. I often say that my "CV" is a list of the things I've done instead of going to school. I think the Earth system perspective I developed by studying geology is really useful in explaining climate change. I often start by asking people to consider our planet as four separate Earth-sized spheres—the geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. Using photographs to show how humans reshape the geosphere into roads and buildings, modify the hydrosphere using dams and other infrastructure, and control which parts of the biosphere are permitted to thrive helps people get a sense of the scale at which we alter the atmosphere. Though the tons of heat-trapping gases we add to the atmosphere every day are not visibly obvious, their impacts are now cascading through the rest of the Earth system.

I understand you’ve worked in Antarctica. How did that come about?

In 2006, I participated in an NSF-supported research-immersion program for educators. The ANDRILL project placed a drill rig on the surface of the McMurdo Ice Shelf.

Drillers sent the drill down through the ice and the ocean water below it to cut and retrieve a kilometer-long rock core. The 20 million years of sediments in the core documented around 50 cycles of ice expansion and contraction over the drillsite. Working in Antarctica is actually what changed my focus from teaching about the Earth system to teaching about climate. As part of ANDRILL’s education and outreach for the International Polar Year, I developed a book of hands-on learning activities called Antarctica’s Climate Secrets. The activities use physical models, videos, and posters to introduce geologic processes and research practices. Youth in after-school programs build the models and use the activity artifacts to stage an informal science exhibit in which they serve as explainers. Evaluations showed this last step—giving learners the opportunity to teach the material—substantially increased their interest and learning.
Infographic about rock cores in Antarctica
Infographic about rock cores in Antarctica
Image credit: ANDRILL

How does your work support climate resilience?

I currently serve as an editor for the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit and as the User Advocate for the Climate Explorer. I’m also part of the team behind the Climate Mapping for Resilience and Adaptation (CMRA) portal. Through these tools, we encourage people to figure out which of their assets could be damaged by climate-related hazards, and then engage their communities to come up with equitable ways to protect the things they value most. A current challenge in building climate resilience is communicating best practices for using information from global climate models. People get what it means when a tool says they could see 50 days per year with afternoons over 100°F. But if someone wants to apply that information to a decision involving an expensive infrastructure project, they would also need to know that “50 days per year” is an average over a 30-year period and individual years will vary. They’d also want to know that the results are for two specific storylines that may or may not play out. Another thing they might want is an evaluation of the methods used to make the global projections useful at a local scale.

Over the course of your career, how have you seen the national conversation about climate change evolve?

LuAnn in Antarctica
LuAnn in Antarctica
Image credit: LuAnn Dahlman
I’ve been writing and making presentations about climate change for more than 15 years. One of the things people have consistently asked for is a way to help them confront the “controversy.” In other words, the folks who sowed fear and doubt about transitioning our economy away from fossil fuels made people afraid to even hold a conversation about it. That’s finally changing, I perceive, especially among young people. I recently noticed a positive sign when I agreed to give a presentation at a local high school for their Environmental Club. I expected it would be just a small classroom of students, but the organizer said, “Oh no! We have enough interest to fill the auditorium.” That's a really promising turning point to me, that younger people are more aware of the issue and ready to do something to address it.

When you do presentations, what are some key strategies that you use for communicating climate science in plain language and making it more accessible?

I like to use analogies. Starting with a familiar concept, you can help people modify that understanding or use a new perspective to transfer what they already know to a new concept. The best analogies require that folks have a solid understanding of the “familiar” concept. For this reason, I’ve never liked using a greenhouse as an analogy to explain global warming... After all, very few people have any practical experience with greenhouses. Rather, I like to start with the idea that wrapping a blanket around your body traps heat near your skin. Adding another blanket will trap even more heat. Earth’s atmosphere is like a blanket around the planet. The exhaust from burning fossil fuels is making that blanket thicker, trapping more heat near Earth’s surface. I also strive to use clear and vivid language, and to encourage people to use their imaginations to get a feel for different climate conditions. For instance, I want people to get a physical sense of the icky, sticky feeling they get when facing another afternoon in a string of hot summer days. Or I might encourage them to tap into the disappointment they feel when they step outside on a summer morning and recognize that it simply didn’t cool down overnight.

What tips do you have for people who want to become science communicators?

Prepare yourself by paying attention to science! Make it a habit to read research summaries and abstracts and explore figures and diagrams across several fields. Learn the fundamental principles of statistics. Practice annotating charts and graphs to help readers make meaning from data.  In addition to just jumping in and sharing science with others, a number of groups offer workshops and courses to improve science communication skills. For example, I really enjoyed the two-day workshop put on by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. This group specializes in helping scientists tell their own stories more clearly by eliminating jargon and using techniques from improvisational theater. I also recall a worksheet that helps speakers zero in on the few most important messages they really want to share.
Do you have any practical advice to share with younger generations of women?
Hiking in Arizona
Hiking in Arizona
Image credit: LuAnn Dahlman
Use your curiosity to explore how you might contribute to the world. If you like science and mathematics, expose yourself to as many different STEM topics as you can and make a note of the ones that spark your joy. Be bold in your explorations—draw on all your networks to find opportunities and hear from the people who are doing interesting things.  Also, take all the math courses you can handle, and work hard in them so you know what it means to stretch your intellect. You may not become a mathematician, but knowing how to learn is a skill you can use the rest of your life. And mathematics is universal—equations are equal in all cultures. Related to mathematics, my final encouragement is that everyone should learn to code! It seems that the world might be run by computers talking to other computers someday, and if you don’t know at least the fundamentals of coding, some doors will simply not be open to you.

Do you have any female mentors or role models? What have they taught you?

Over my career, a range of colleagues have encouraged and inspired me to develop new skills and thrive in new roles. One important thing I learned from a female mentor is that your satisfaction with a job is directly related to your contribution to it. As a result, I often find myself stepping up to lead tasks instead of just contributing. Her advice was “If something is worth doing, go all in!” Special thanks to LuAnn Dahlman for participating in this interview for Women’s History Month at NOAA

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