UArizona climate-change researcher wins $1M national award

May 1, 2022, 12:00 PM
(Twitter Photo/@uarizona)...
(Twitter Photo/@uarizona)
(Twitter Photo/@uarizona)

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Dwelling on the past has earned University of Arizona researcher Jessica Tierney a prestigious, $1 million award from the National Science Foundation.

The Alan T. Waterman Award is the nation’s highest honor for early-career scientists and engineers, and it recognizes outstanding individual achievements in foundation-supported research.

Tierney was singled out for her efforts to use prehistoric climate signals to reconstruct ancient conditions and help predict the future.

“Studying the past is important because it can narrow our projections for what climate will look like at the end of the century, and what sort of impacts humans will face,” Tierney said in a statement.

The associate professor in the Department of Geosciences is the first researcher from the UA — and the first climatologist anywhere — to receive the Waterman prize since Congress established it in 1975.

“Receiving this award signals that one of the nation’s top research funders recognizes the urgency of understanding the Earth system as humans drive climate change,” Tierney said. “It makes me feel like my research is important and really making a difference.”

She earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in geology from Brown before joining the UA in 2015.

“Dr. Tierney has quickly made a name for herself in the climate sciences, and we couldn’t be more proud that she has won this prestigious award,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. “This is a tremendous honor, and we’re lucky to have her incredibly valuable expertise at our university.”

Tierney recently served as a lead author on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment report, which was released in three parts last year and earlier this year.

She specializes in teasing organic climate clues from fossil molecules known as biomarkers preserved in sediments and rocks.

By combining such data with novel modeling techniques, she can chart past conditions and the system dynamics that produced them, redefining in the process how scientists understand the influence of carbon dioxide levels on prehistoric changes in climate.

For a 2020 paper published in the journal Nature, for example, Tierney and her team spent four years compiling and analyzing as many ancient climate signals as possible from the last ice age, with a particular focus on ocean temperatures.

The resulting cache of about 1,800 data points was then plugged into cutting-edge computer models at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, to produce a unique look back Tierney called a “hindcast.”

Her pioneering work in “molecular paleoclimatology” previously earned her national recognition as a Packard Foundation Fellow in 2014 and an American Geophysical Union Fellow in 2015. The Packard award came with $875,000 in research money over five years.

Tierney is one of just three scientists nationwide selected for the 2022 Waterman Award, which was named for the National Science Foundation’s first director.

This year’s prize will be presented on May 5 during a ceremony at the National Science Board meeting in Washington, D.C.

In addition to a medal, each recipient gets $1 million in research funding over five years. Tierney said the money will help support her students, post-doctoral researchers and her lab manager as they pursue new areas of research.

“In particular, this award will allow us to explore high-risk, high-reward ideas that have the potential to transform our understanding of past and future climate change,” she said.

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UArizona climate-change researcher wins $1M national award