Women of Discovery: Q&A with Beate G. Liepert

WINGS WorldQuest will induct six new inspiring women as Fellows during our 2016 Women of Discovery Awards Gala in October. In advance of our gala, we are highlighting the work of each new Awardee. We begin our series with Beate G. Liepert, who discovered the climate change phenomenon of global dimming, and will receive our Earth Award. Read the rest of the series here.

WWQ: tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and exploration?

BGL: I don’t think there was a singular moment in my life that put me on a track of science and exploration. I was always a very curious person, who loved the unknown, the abstract and the elegant even as a child. I was fortunate to grow up in Germany in the 1970s and 80s. Education was free and not obsessive about testing back then. I would not have gone to college otherwise. As a teenager I had these lofty dreams of doing something good for the world and for others, and the environmental movement attracted me. But I was too geeky for politics. I audited all kinds of classes at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich and meteorology felt right. I loved math and physics, and took classes in environmental philosophy, history and fine arts. The discovery of global dimming was my masters and doctoral thesis. I almost wasn’t granted my PhD because nobody believed my results. Only the director of the Max-Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg Hartmut Grassl supported me. A year later my thesis was cited in the first United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climatic Change Report. Unemployed, broke, and single again, I got the opportunity to go to New York for a postdoc at Columbia University to work on the same subject here in the U.S. I often visited the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology where I worked with climate models. I left academia in 2009 and joined NorthWest Research Associates, a research cooperative in Seattle. Now I am working on a new endeavor and started my own company Lumen. I develop software for new designs of photovoltaic systems to harvest solar energy. This new project combines my artistic and my scientific sides. I got sick of being the bearer of bad news and end of the world scenarios. Instead I want to work on solutions. The WINGS award is a blessing and I will put it towards my new ideas.

WWQ: What is it like to work as a woman in your field?

BGL: My feminine qualities were not needed and my male qualities were not strong enough in my field of physics and climate research. I felt my scientific qualifications, work ethics, and professional attitude were secondary. I always had to go out of the field and connect with other groups or fields to feel whole as a person. I chose to enroll in a certificate program for the fine arts at Parsons School of Design while working as a scientist at Columbia University. It was time consuming and demanding but I couldn’t do without it. I needed another environment. I think not feeling whole in my field of science may ring true to many people and not just me as a woman. I always thought: wouldn’t it be nice if I could be my true best self in science.

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

BGL: The greatest barriers in science in my opinion is scientific tribalism. I think of science a being dominated by tribes that stick to their tribal rites. The tribal thinking in science leads to a lack of diversity, especially intellectual diversity in traditional scientific institutions. Protectionism stifles creativity. You are confronted with rituals you are not familiar with that makes everyday work life hard. These rites do not make sense for somebody outside the tribe. In my opinion it takes more than just hiring women and minorities into the junior ranks to break these tribal behaviors. I hope in future, there will be more alternatives for scientists to work in non-traditional settings where they can feel at home and be creative. 

 WWQ: What is the most serious threat the world faces?

BGL: In my opinion the largest threat we are facing is increasing indifference and lack of empathy, towards other humans and the world in general. I could say global climate change is the largest threat, but this is only one symptom of the general lack of empathy that I see from my arguable limited perspective.

WWQ: Describe yourself in three words. 

BGL: I strive to be a curious, creative optimist.

Your donation helps extraordinary women make extreme discoveries.