Matthew Shupe, Ph.D., is a physical scientist for NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research on clouds, precipitation, and atmospheric structure over the Arctic provides data critical to monitor climate variability in the region. In 2011, Shupe was honored as co-author of a publication selected for a 2010 OAR Outstanding Scientific Paper Award.
Why does your research matter?
I study cloud and atmosphere processes that influence Arctic energy and hydrologic systems. As our global climate changes, it is apparent that these changes are manifesting quickly and strongly in the Arctic. Cloud processes play important roles in the changing Arctic climate, but since there have been few comprehensive measurements of the cloud-atmosphere-surface system and our modeling capabilities are similarly limited, we do not have a very good understanding of these roles. Ultimately, an improved understanding of these important processes will contribute towards better climate model simulations, both within the Arctic region and on global scales.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
"My job as a scientist at NOAA found me (unfunded and unsure of my direction) at an Arctic experiment, brought me to Boulder, and showed me that a scientist’s life of intellectual challenges can be fulfilling in many ways. "
For the day-to-day, I enjoy scientific conversations with colleagues because they reveal new ideas and help to consolidate our progress on various subjects. I also enjoy field work in exotic and extreme Arctic environments. These are really once-in-a-lifetime (well, maybe more like once-in-a-year!) opportunities to see some amazing places and to be embedded within the environment that I study. The experiences provide important context on a scientific level and are captivating on a personally level.
Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
“Most” of my work consists of sitting in front of a computer, as there is so much data to analyze! I also spend significant chunks of time at meetings of various flavors. Lastly, while it comprises a relatively small portion of my actual time, I do conduct field work at many locations around the world, primarily in the Arctic. This later element is critical for me to maintain some semblance of physical and mental balance.
What in your lab could you not live without?
Collaboration. While it is fun and fulfilling to conduct independent, individual research, it is ultimately through a network of collaborations with other scientists that our ideas and studies collectively begin to have more meaning and impact. These days collaboration has become so easy because of improved tools for communication (email, Skype, shared documents, etc.) and the relative ease of travel to meetings. I can only imagine that collaborations were much more difficult in the past.
If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?
The easy answer here is a well-coordinated, multi-instrument cloud-atmosphere observatory that combines a variety of active and passive remote sensors. There currently exist some approximations of such a system, but each has significant limitations. However, if I were to focus on a single measurement, I would like to develop an ice nucleation chamber that is able to observe and characterize all mechanisms through which ice crystals nucleate in the atmosphere. Our current capabilities for making such measurements are limited to the point that I do not believe that we have a very comprehensive understanding of atmospheric ice particle formation.
When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
I actually think science pursued me. My mind has always thirsted for challenges, typically mechanical or mathematical in nature. As I worked my way through school, test scores and achievements seemed to suggest that science had selected me. It became even clearer when I found myself excited each day for my 8 a.m. organic chemistry class during college. But even after all of that, I still do not feel that I pursued science as an occupation after college. My job as a scientist at NOAA found me (unfunded and unsure of my direction) at an Arctic experiment, brought me to Boulder, and showed me that a scientist’s life of intellectual challenges can be fulfilling in many ways.
What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
I have not read many of the science-themed books that target a general audience. I’m sure there are some good ones. In the end, if one is interested in a career in science, I think it is best to dive into the literature of the specific area of interest. Find review articles or books that help to outline the status of the field and the outstanding questions that need more attention.
And how about a personal favorite book?
Some of my favorite books are by Ayn Rand because of the consistency and purity -- and sometimes insanity -- of her characters. I also enjoy books like Fingerprints of the Gods or Collapse, which offer intriguing perspectives on humankinds’ history on this planet. Overall, my most favorite books are those like The Bhagavad Gita and The Way of the Bodhisattva as they continue to reveal new insights on life and our situation here each time I read passages.
What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?
The non-research aspects of being a scientist! These were not unexpected entirely, but I have been surprised at the way in which these other activities such as travel to meetings, reviewing written material, acting in leadership roles, paperwork, etc. tend to take over if you are not careful!
Do you have an outside hobby?
I enjoy working with wood, carving, lathe work, and other building projects. These days they are usually related in some way to home improvements. I also spend a fair amount of time with my family enjoying the many outdoor activities that Colorado has to offer including skiing, backpacking, mountain biking, and rafting.
What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
This is a tough one to answer. I have always enjoyed art and design, and I initially planned to go to architecture school. So perhaps that could have been a direction for me. But now that I have led the scientist’s life, I see the importance of intellectual stimulation and challenge at work. Perhaps architecture would have offered enough of that.
Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian scientist and explorer, who was the first to cross the Greenland Ice Sheet in the 1880s and charted new territory in the Arctic Ocean in the 1890s. His endeavors are inspiring to me as an Arctic scientist who works in both Greenland and the Arctic Ocean, although our current adventures pale in comparison to his. How did his team ever survive without Gore-Tex, ice breakers, snow machines, and diesel generators? And in spite of their challenges, the team was still able to make measurements that are scientifically important and relevant today.
Shupe holds a Ph.D. and master's degree in astrophysical, planetary and atmospheric sciences from the University of Colorado. He studied atmospheric chemistry and mathematics for his bachelor of science degree at the University of Puget Sound.