Celebrating National Hispanic American Heritage Month NCCS User Spotlight: Clara Orbe
As part of NASA's National Hispanic American Heritage Month celebration, this spotlight shines on NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) user Dr. Clara Orbe. We follow Orbe from her childhood living in several East Coast states to her current role leading the atmospheric dynamics group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City.
What is your family ancestry/country of origin? While I was born in the United States, my parents (and all other family members) are from a small province outside of Buenos Aires in Argentina. I have dual citizenship with Argentina.
Where is your hometown?
I grew up moving around a lot, as my father tried to secure stable work. I was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, until I was 11 years old; and then settled down in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, during high school. My new hometown is Brooklyn, New York, where I've been since 2008, with a five-year stint in Washington, DC, in the middle.
What was your career path to NASA?
I majored in math at Brown University (Bachelor of Science, 2007), received a Ph.D. in applied math at Columbia University (2013), and then served as a NASA Postdoctoral Program fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Dynamics Laboratory. I then transitioned to working as an Associate Research Scientist in the Global Modeling Assimilation Office (GMAO) at GSFC until I was hired as a civil servant Research Physical Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in 2018.
What is your current role at NASA?
At GISS, I lead the atmospheric dynamics group and the development of the high-top stratosphere-resolving configuration of the GISS climate model (ModelE2.2). I also maintain an active relationship with the GMAO in support of evaluating large-scale atmospheric transport processes in NASA's Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) model developed at GSFC. I also serve as an associate adjunct faculty member in the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics at Columbia University, where I advise doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows in various problems related to stratospheric dynamics and understanding Earth's climate sensitivity. i
How has NCCS supported your research/career? As a researcher whose primary tool is numerical modeling, my entire research career is indebted to the services provided by NCCS. My research portfolio is centered around the development and analysis of climate- and decadal-scale projections using NASA's premier Earth system models (GEOS and ModelE). So, basically, without NCCS, I would be a lot less productive!
What is your current research focus? My current research interests are oriented toward an improved understanding of large-scale atmospheric dynamics and transport. Specifically, I am interested in using models to project and understand future changes in how the stratosphere potentially couples to Earth's surface climate. I am also interested in developing observational constraints of large-scale transport processes that control how air pollution travels around in the Earth system.
What or who especially inspires you? I am inspired by several fellow scientists and how they think about science, ranging from how they formulate questions to how they propose tackling problems. Among others, these include several mentors with whom I've been fortunate to have had really intellectually rewarding relationships, including Dr. Steven Pawson (GSFC), Professor Darryn Waugh (Johns Hopkins University), and Dr. Paul Newman (GSFC).
Are there any people of Hispanic heritage in history/in your field who have influenced you? As an undergraduate I was strongly influenced by Dr. Carlos Castillo-Chavez. He founded and led a mathematical epidemiology program based at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where I interned the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Brown. That was a very transformational period for me, in terms of deciding to pursue graduate studies in applied math.
[Editor's note: Dr. Castillo-Chavez is a Mexican-American mathematician who retired from Arizona State University in 2020.]
What challenges have you had to overcome? One recent challenge has been task delegation and management. I am a rather reserved person, and I really enjoy doing scientific analysis. So, leading a group and assigning tasks that I was otherwise okay performing myself were initially a real challenge when I joined NASA GISS, especially given issues related to large age gaps and gender role dynamics with those I supervise. But now, with practice, I am much more comfortable delegating work.
How can the science and technology sector better encourage and support people of Hispanic heritage?
I think that Latino students (especially women) need to be explicitly told early on that they are completely capable of carving out a career in math and science. The Latino community may not even think that STEM-related fields are an option, especially if they're cast as too academic or elitist. To this end, this message needs to be instilled at the beginning of elementary school and consistently communicated during all levels of secondary education. Attempts to diversify applicant pools post-undergraduate are well intentioned but ultimately too late.
Orbe, C., D. Rind, J. Jonas, L. Nazarenko, G. Faluvegi, L.T. Murray, D.T. Shindell, K. Tsigaridis, T. Zhou, M. Kelley, and G. Schmidt, 2020: GISS Model E2.2: A climate model optimized for the middle atmosphere. Part 2: Validation of large-scale transport and evaluation of climate response. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos., 125, no. 24, e2020JD033151, doi:10.1029/2020JD033151.