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Interview of Ellen D. Williams by David Zierler on September 21, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Ellen D. Williams, Director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. Williams recounts her childhood in Michigan, and the benefits that she enjoyed growing up during the height of the U.S. car manufacturing era. She discusses her undergraduate education at Michigan State where she developed an interest in physical chemistry and become involved in women’s rights issues. Williams explains her decision to attend Caltech for graduate school, where she conducted thesis research on the statistical mechanics of surfaces using electron diffraction. She describes the opportunities leading to her appointment in physics and astronomy at Maryland, and she explains the transition from chemistry to a physics department, which was smoothed by the fact that her research focused on phase transitions and critical phenomena. Williams describes achieving tenure and her work within the Institute for Physical Science and Technology. She explains her research in scanning tunneling microscopes and nanotechnologies, and her increasing fluency in working with government funding agencies. Williams explains her decision to join BP as chief scientist where she was involved in fostering BP’s commitment to sustainability, and she describes Ernest Moniz’s offer for her to direct ARPA-E at DOE during the second term of the Obama administration. She conveys her enjoyment working in such a focused manner on clean energy in this role and her contributions to the Paris Climate Accord. Williams describes returning to Maryland and explains the most efficacious way of teaching students about both the science and policy implications of climate change. At the end of the interview, Williams discusses her work as director of the Earth Systems Science Interdisciplinary Center and the ongoing governmental collaborations this position allows, and she offers optimism that we have both the technological and political tools to mitigate climate change effectively.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. I’m so happy to be here with Professor Ellen D. Williams. Ellen, thank you so much for joining me today.
It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
To start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
I am the director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, and a distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland.
And I see from your setting right now, you’re actually able to go into work these days.
Yes, I’m spending about half time in my office these days, sort of setting an expectation that at some time in the next year, life will begin to return to some kind of normalcy (laughter).
(Laughter) We certainly hope so. Are you doing any teaching these days?
No. When I took on my administrative responsibility, which was just before the Covid situation broke, they offered me this semester off from teaching, and I accepted it. So, this semester, I’m not teaching, thank goodness.
(Laughter) A whole new set of challenges you’re facing now.
Yeah, and I’m finding that the more time I spend on Zoom, the less I enjoy this way of interacting. It’s so much nicer to talk to people in person.
No doubt about it. Well, Ellen, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. I want to hear first about your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
My parents were Lois, nee Prasher, Williams, and my father, Richard Williams. My mother was born at the beginning of the Depression, grew up in Wisconsin in a poor family, lived through the deprivations and rationing of the Depression and World War II, graduated from high school, started college and was working at a summer job at a resort, where she met my father, and they got married. My mother was a very active, intelligent woman. The quilt that you see on the wall behind me is one of hers. She unfortunately died a couple of years ago of cancer. She brought up me and my three siblings, and I think we gave her a run for her money. She went back to school in her fifties and got her bachelor’s degree, she was just the second person in her generation of her extended family to get a college degree. So, that’s my mom.
My dad was a bit older. He was born in 1917, so he grew up and hit the Depression just at the time he was about to go off to college. His parents had their savings wiped out in the crash, so he didn’t go to Yale, but was able to go to the University of Connecticut instead. He earned a mechanical engineering degree and worked for Air Cooled Motors He joined the Army when World War II started, and was in the Cavalry, which meant tanks. He never talked about his war experiences when I was growing up but we know from his correspondence with his sister that he was shaken by the loss of life at Anzio He came home after the war and went to work for Kiekhaefer Motors (now Mercury Marine) in Wisconsin, which is where he met my mother. He subsequently took a job at Ford Motor Company, shortly after I was born, we moved to Michigan, which is where I grew up.
Did you grow up outside of Detroit?
Yes, in Livonia, one of the suburbs of Detroit.
And was your father a mechanical engineer there as well?
Yeah. My father was a mechanical engineer. I’ve got a great picture of him, I don’t have it here in my office with me, of him in the mid-1950s, down in Baja, Mexico, test-driving the prototype Thunderbird just before it was released, so that’s a nice piece of history.
Did your father- did you get a sense of what he did? Did he involve you in his career at all? I’m trying to get a sense of your early exposure to science and mechanics, and things like that.
Well, I’m the oldest, and of his four children, I’m probably the one who would have been most likely to become an engineer (laughter). But my dad deeply felt that engineering was no career for a girl. When was starting his career, the engineer was down in the shop, chest to chest the foreman, toughing it out about how things were going to be done, and he just didn’t think that that was a job for women. So, he didn’t want to see his daughters go into engineering. He, in fact, later on encouraged me to get into computer science, which was visionary of him, because that was early days in the sixties, but he saw the computer science capabilities emerging and thought it was important. He played around with some of the early systems and encouraged me to look at it as well.
So, to the extent that he saw things in highly gendered ways, his concern was not intellectual about you becoming an engineer, it was purely a physical concern.
It was the physical thing. He really felt engineering was a tough guy’s job. And yes, he definitely, for all of us kids, encouraged us intellectually, to study math and science and other things, and be prepared to get out there and do a job.
Now, did you go to public school or private school growing up?
Yes, I went to public school. I grew up in Livonia which had a good school system, for the time. I think we had four AP classes in my high school: English, math, chemistry, history and maybe physics. And I was encouraged to do the French AP curriculum on the side. So, for the time, that was a pretty progressive school system.
Yeah. And this is also- this coincides with really the height of the American car culture.
And also, unions were strong. It must have been a very solid middle-class upbringing.
Oh, yes. Michigan was a booming place. I played in the Michigan Youth Symphony, and we would drive all over the state and give concerts in little towns. And we’d drive into a little town, and there’d be a new high school with a beautiful auditorium where we were going to give the concert. And as we drove into town, there would often be an automobile factory on the outskirts, providing a tax base that had made it possible for the town to have that nice new high school.
And it’s pretty sad to kind of see what’s happened since, the unions went down, and the whole economy has been hurt so badly.
What were your parents’ politics?
My parents, I would say, were moderate Republicans. At that time, George Romney was the governor of Michigan.
Yeah. That would be at a time when moderate Republican and modern Democrat were not really so far apart.
That’s really the case.
Right. Ellen, when did you start to get interested in math and science yourself? Was that from an early age?
It was from an early age. I was good at math in elementary school and interested in it. So yes, I had an interest in math and science all the way through. Junior high wasn’t very stimulating in terms of what we did in science. But I took algebra in the eighth and ninth grades, and logic, geometry and calculus in high school. I really enjoyed all those things. I didn’t have much of a sense of what a scientist did. In fact, I remember at one point, we were doing some career possibilities module, reading a text about how there was no place in science anymore for individualism. It was all big teams, and they made it sound unattractive. I believed that was all of science and I decide that wasn’t a career for me (laughter). So, I decided I would be a doctor, just because I thought I knew what a doctor was and I could visualize having a career as a doctor.
When you were thinking about colleges, chemistry, and an academic career in chemistry, was not on your radar at that point?
Chemistry was definitely on my radar. As I went through high school, chemistry was a class that really stimulated my interest. I had a great chemistry teacher. I did a summer science program oriented towards chemistry. And so, I decided I would major in chemistry, but with the idea that that would lead to medical school, because I didn’t have any idea what a chemist did (laughter). So, I went off to Michigan State University, which is where I had done my summer science program and started taking the chemistry and pre-med curriculum. I quickly decided I loved the chemistry, and I didn’t care for the pre-med so much. Along the way I had advisors who encouraged me and suggested I should go to graduate school. My reaction was “Oh, what’s graduate school?” (laughter) I really had no idea.
Ellen, what kinds of chemistry were most compelling to you as an undergraduate?
Even as an undergraduate, I was much more interested in the physical science side of things. I was fortunate in MSU’s strong chemistry curriculum that started with introductory quantum mechanics. Later, our organic chemistry course was a textbook by Morrison and Boyd, which was very oriented towards mechanistic description, and I enjoyed that because we understood how and why things worked. But I especially liked the quantitative physical science side of my courses. My advisors encouraged me to take lot of alternative courses, most in chemistry, a couple in math, and a couple in physics. Through those I became interested in thermodynamics and statistically oriented ideas.
At one point, I took a polymer science course and encountered the Flory-Huggins equation. It was developed back in the twenties or thirties, when scientists were working out the solution properties of long-chain polymers, which act like long strands of interconnected segments. I was stunned that you could start from such a very simple model and then predict how the complicated system of a solution of polymers was going to behave. So, I did an independent study project on the history of the Flory-Huggins equation and how it all developed and I got an eye-opening exposure to the process of how a new idea evolves. As I was reading the literature and going through historical old journals and papers by many different authors, I really saw how iterative exploration of many approaches can develop into understanding. There were lots of papers, all on this one subject, until finally the winning clear concept arose, and the new idea was tested, accepted and became a standard in applications.
Ellen, on the social side of things, you were in college sort of at the tail end of the anti-war protests and civil rights, and things like that.
I’m curious if you were political at all during college, or what the scene was like at Michigan State.
Michigan State had been an extremely active campus in the anti-war protests. But most of that really ferocious anti-war activity had damped down by the time I started college in ’72. There was still a very strong cultural sense of those issues, and also at that time, the women’s movement was going strong.
And it was a big influence for me and all the young women I knew. We had the sense that we were a kind of pioneer, trying to do new things and go places that women hadn’t been welcome, and frankly getting pushback sometimes from male students, but also sometimes from other women.
Ellen, I wonder if in the Women’s Rights movement you were thinking specifically about how you might harness all of this energy as you were thinking about pursuing a career in science, and some roadblocks that you might have seen as a woman, coming up in that field.
Well I don’t think I was very introspective at that point. I just felt as if there were barriers out there, and I was not going to let them stop me. In retrospect, I look back and I say, “Boy, why didn’t I inquire more about what the barriers were?” (laughter) and think more carefully about how I should approach them. In retrospect I feel as if I bashed through in a bit of pinball fashion (laughter). I’m happy to see these days that many schools have programs that help students understand and prepare for such challenges.
(Laughter) And in retrospect, what are those barriers that you now see clearly, back when you were in college?
Like, for example, becoming a university professor, as a scientist, as a woman scientist. Did that seem, in retrospect, like a far-fetched idea?
Well, I felt it was my right to aspire to something like that, and I shouldn’t be denied that. But I didn’t really understand- I think the thing that’s really hard, especially for young people to understand is how difficult it can be to be in an unwelcoming social environment. The fact that you might be talented, you might be good, you might be able to do your job, but if every single day you come into work and even some of the people around you are negative and obstructive, that just makes it much harder than it should be to get things done and it undermines your self-confidence.
And you’re not even- you’re not necessarily only referring to sort of overt negativity.
It could be in minor ways. It could be comments. It could be things that might have gone- slipped under the radar.
I certainly saw some overt negativity. But yes, it can be also more subtle, for example, when you have an idea and you go and talk to somebody about it, do they say, “Hey, let me work on that with you,” or do they shrug and express disinterest. And at the time, it never occurred to me that any of the disinterest was because I was a woman or a competitor. I just figured, “Okay, they didn’t like my idea.” But in retrospect I realize that being subtly, consistently discouraged is a problem for women in general. For me, it may be that by being a bit of a sharp-elbowed, abrasive, “I can do anything” person, I didn’t recognize and deflect some things I could have perhaps deflected otherwise. On the other hand, why are some people actually like that? (laughter)
And on that note, Ellen, do you remember specifically a moment when you said, “I’m going to go for a PhD”? Was that sort of a drawn-out process, or did you have an epiphany one day, and you said, “I’m going for it”?
No, it was like (laughter)- sometimes I remember talking to some of my friends and saying, “You know, we’re all hoop-jumpers. You put a challenge in front of us, and we’ll jump at it.” So, at some point along the way, one of my advisors told me, “You should go get a PhD” I said, “Okay, that’s my next challenge and I can keep doing the kind of work I enjoy. I’m for it.” And I probably had a bit of a sense, when I went to Caltech, that that was a special challenge, because Caltech had been an all-men’s school, and it only recently started admitting women undergraduates. It had always, in principle, allowed women graduate students, but it now they’d opened the doors, as if thinking, “Okay, let’s just let some women in and see what happens.”
Do you know how many years back, when they first started letting women in as undergraduates? It couldn’t have been that long ago.
I started there in ’76. I think it was only a few years before that.
When I got there, it seemed to be a learning process in which they were trying to figure out what would work. They had a very strong system of houses for the undergraduates. You know, different houses with different personalities. And the women were placed in the houses, just the way they placed the men. And unsurprisingly it didn’t go uniformly smoothly (laughter). They, like most other Universities, spent many years working out how to combine the strengths of the Institute’s culture with providing a constructive learning environment. And now I believe they’re doing well.
Where else did you apply for graduate school?
Stanford, MIT, and UT-Austin and UC-San Diego.
And why did Caltech win out for you?
I was really interested in polymers at that point. And I applied to Stanford and UC-San Diego because I was interested in the polymer programs they had there. But when I visited, I didn’t feel that the opportunities were that great. I had a great visit with Caltech (laughter). And even though they didn’t have much polymer work, I met some professors who I thought were doing really interesting things and decided I should do something other than polymers.
Ellen, between your interest in polymers and physical aspects of chemistry, I’m curious if you ever thought about physics also, particularly- I mean, soft-matter physics, at that point, would have been a very ahead-of-the-curve kind of field.
Yes, but possibly too far ahead at that time.
But I’m curious if you ever thought, you know, not from a chemistry perspective but more from a physics perspective.
Yes. I was kind of negative on physics. I didn’t really enjoy my high school or undergraduate physics classes, and I just didn’t have a sense of the possibilities in physics. When I was in graduate school, of course, I had choices about what kind of research I was going to do, and I chose surface science- very exciting research opportunities, dynamic professor and very active group. And looking back on it, there was another direction I could have gone, more biophysics orientation and that would have been a very different pathway that could easily have happened. But there wasn’t, I think, at Caltech an option that would have worked well for me in physics.
And what was the curriculum like in chemistry? How much lab work was there? How much theoretical chemistry was there? Experimental chemistry? Can you describe a little bit- you know, the years up to your dissertation research, the sort of overall curriculum?
Caltech permitted a lot of individual choice in the graduate curriculum. Students could spend the first year taking courses, but basically, the idea was to get involved in research as fast as possible. I took my advisor’s statistical mechanics of surfaces course, quantum mechanics, and a physics course on E&M/math methods and something similar in the spring. Also, a special-project course on extended X-ray absorption fine structure, which was just emerging as a new structural probe. And by the spring, I was getting engaged in research. I’d picked my research advisor, and after that, just a few classes.
And how did you develop your relationship with Professor [Steven] Weinberg?
He was one of the people I saw when I visited ahead of time, and so I went to see him and his group early on, we were required to go and talk to various professors about research. I was very shy, and it was so hard for me to go and talk to these professors. I just agonized over it. So, I talked to him and several other professors, and I started attending his group meetings. And I took his class which I really enjoyed.
Which class was that? What did he teach?
He taught a class that was basically the statistical mechanics of surfaces. I liked it because, like the polymer question, there are many significant problems that you can address starting from a simple model. For surfaces, these have to do with how molecules or atoms hit and stick to surfaces and move around, form stable structures, and how reactions occur between them. That appealed to my pleasure in thinking mechanistically about how things work. So, I loved his class. I also enjoyed his group meetings. And so finally I overcame my shyness and went to see him and asked, “Can I join your group?” He said, “Yes, you can. Here’s a project. Get started.” And away we went.
(Laughter) And is that essentially how you developed your dissertation topic?
Yes, that was the start. My dissertation topic- in context, at that point, the field of surface science was just hopping. The tools to do surface science had developed painfully and slowly over the years, and at that time were just ready to go in addressing all the key questions in how molecules interact with each other on surfaces. There was tremendous activity and excitement.
It was finally possible to routinely maintain the ultrahigh vacuum environment needed for experiments, and the probes that you needed to have sensitivity for detecting the layer of atoms at the surface were finally maturing. And so basically, if you could cut and polish a surface and clean it up, put it in a vacuum chamber and reflect a well-controlled electron beam off it (all of which is much harder than it sounds!), you were practically guaranteed to make a new observation (laughter). So, it was really exciting. Because I was interested in statistical properties related to structures, I used primarily electron diffraction. My thesis work focused the ability to quantify structures on surfaces and understand structural transitions using electron diffraction. The first project my advisor assigned me was computational, to do a Monte Carlo calculation of adsorption dynamics, which I enjoyed a lot - and it resulted in my first publication.
Ellen, given that this was such an exciting time in the field, I wonder if you spent any time thinking sort of more broadly about how your dissertation and your research interests were responsive to those bigger questions at the time.
Well certainly, and from two perspectives. The first was the applications of surface science for catalysis and all that means for creating more effective, sustainable paths to the products we need. That perspective came back strongly later on in my life. The second was more academic: right at that time, there was a huge amount of excitement in the statistical mechanics community about phase transitions and critical phenomena. So, I was engaged with how my research fit in with these ideas about critical phenomena, which ultimately resulted in a Nobel Prize in that area - awarded to Wilson. So, it was very interesting to try make an impact in this vibrant area.
Were you thinking ever about possibly pursuing a career in industry, or you were always sort of on the basic science academic track?
I was encouraged and mentored to stay on the academic track. I did do industrial visits, but to places like Bell Labs and Exxon, which at that time, were fundamentally doing basic surface science research. I didn’t get much exposure to the real practical domain. But on the other hand, the fundamental area was so wide open that the practical applications needed time to develop. And later, much of the understanding and techniques of surface science also had broader impacts nanotechnology.
Right. I’m curious to look back, how was your experience as a woman at Caltech?
I think it was good. I think it was really good. Basically, as I said, Caltech’s attitude was: let’s let these women in and see what happens.
I don’t recall ever feeling that there was any pushback or sense that I didn’t belong there. I didn’t encounter, from the male students, what I’d certainly encountered as an undergraduate and later on in my life, the refrain of “You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t a woman” or “You’re getting special treatment.” I felt that I was just being given the opportunity to do good work and prove myself. So, I had a happy time. It’s interesting that also there at the same time I was were Arati Prabhakar and Frans Cordova.
I’ve interviewed both of them, actually.
I’m not surprised, they’re both amazing! And, four years ago, all of us were running a government agency in D.C. (laughter).
Yeah. Amazing. So, Ellen, the big question mark in your trajectory at this point is: why the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Maryland? How did that come about after a chemistry PhD?
Ah. There were two aspects to this: one is that actually the most important thing that happened in graduate school is that I met my husband, Neil Gehrels, there. He was in physics, working on astrophysics. We were married a year or two before graduation. So, we were looking for jobs in the same place.
At the same time.
We finished our degrees at about the same time, which was a record early degree from his research group (laughter). So, we were looking for jobs in the same place, and a great place for him to do a postdoc was at Goddard Space Flight Center. And as it turns out, one of the places I was interested in, because they were doing two-dimensional phase transitions and really interesting electron diffraction work, was in the physics department at the University of Maryland. Bob Park was the head of the research group.
He also worked with APS for many years, and sadly he just died recently. So, I wanted to go work for Bob Park, and Neil wanted to go to Goddard.
Perfect. Now, this was- you were a research associate, but it was essentially a postdoc.
Yeah. It’s called “research associate.” That’s the title, but it’s a postdoc.
Did you have a sense from that early stage that this would be the place where you would build your career? Did that click early on for you?
Not immediately. But when the time came that both Neil and I were looking for next positions, Bob Park and one of Neil’s mentors at NASA made a push that this was a real opportunity for both NASA and physics to get good new hires. The university made an offer to me, and NASA made an offer to Neil. So, we were set. The dual career issue is so hard, that was an incredibly stressful time. I can’t imagine a happier solution (laughter).
Yeah. Right. It seems like it really worked out best for everybody. Did you have any misgivings about settling in, in the Department of Physics and Astronomy? Were there any opportunities to pursue in the chemistry department?
The physics department, especially at that time, was a higher ranked department than chemistry was. Chemistry is much stronger now, but at the time, again, I was very naïve, I thought I was better positioned in the physics department. I didn’t really understand that there was a level of difficulty in going out and writing grants and getting reviewed, etcetera, in a field that wasn’t my advisor’s field. You know, people didn’t know me as a physicist. In the end, that all worked out, but it was hard.
What about some of the built-in challenges, simply of not having a physics background?
(Laughter) Again, I was so naïve.
Like, if they come to you and they say, “Time to teach a class on general relativity,” right, how did that work out?
Yeah. Well, nobody would ask me to teach a course on general relativity, but that was more because I was in the Condensed Matter group than because of my chemistry background (laughter).
But basically, I had to learn physics the way it’s taught to physics majors as I went along. I taught statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, graduate lab, the physics of music. I developed a Python course and eventually taught the entire Physics majors and Engineering majors introductory sequences, it was hard work. When you teach a class for the first time, you have to put a lot of effort in it, and I put in extra effort because I hadn’t taken courses from that perspective. As a chemist, you start out learning science, physical science, from a conservation of energy perspective.
And as a physicist, you learn science from an f=ma perspective. As you know, it’s a very different way of looking at things. So, I had to adapt t to teach physics for physics majors.
What about the tenure considerations with regard to publishing? Did you find that it was important or strategic for you to publish in physics journals on physics topics, or could you sort of stay with the same kinds of issues that you were compelled by as a graduate student?
Well fortunately, the area I was interested in, which was phase transitions and critical phenomena, easily crossed the physics/chemistry/materials science boundary. So, I was publishing in Physical Review, as well as surface science journals, and the occasional paper in Phys Rev Letters.
Yeah. And when you did achieve tenure, was your sense that it was for any particular breakthrough paper, or was it more in recognition of the sum total of your achievements up to that point?
I would say that at that point, it was sum total, because I did tenure a little bit early. I’d been well funded and was pushing a lot of things along and had a steady stream of publications.
And I assume that that is related to the Institute for Physical Science and Technology, how that came about for you.
Now, what is the relationship between the institute and the Department of Physics and chemistry, probably, for that matter?
The Institute is an independent department that originally started out as an Institute of Fluid Dynamics and gradually broadened its purview. It’s, in principle, a non-teaching department, although it runs two interdisciplinary graduate programs. But it had, and continues to have, a very strong statistical mechanics orientation. They invited me to take up a joint appointment in the Institute shortly before I was promoted to full professor. I was delighted because this is an incredibly distinguished group of people with whom I had shared interests. Having that affiliation has been an important part of my life at the university.
But it was only a one-year appointment that you were there?
Oh, no. I’m still a member, and when I returned to the University after DOE, I chose to have my office in the Institute.
Yeah. And is that your home department?
No, physics is my tenure home.
And then, what about the chemical physics program? What is the relationship between that and the Institute?
The chemical physics program is one of the graduate programs run by the Institute. The other one is biophysics.
The Institute set up these two cross-disciplinary graduate programs, with the intent to teach a quantitative, physics-oriented perspective, in chemistry and then later in biology. The programs are independent of, but complementary to, the programs in the physics, biology, chemistry and biochemistry departments on campus. They’re small programs, but they attract graduate students who are specifically interested in interdisciplinary research. The professors who are in the Institute or who affiliate with the Institute’s Graduate programs appreciate having those students and they form two lively intellectual communities.
And so, by the early 1990s, how had your research agenda changed? What were some of the evolutions in technology, some of the theoretical bases, what were you doing at this point?
A big challenge for me from the start had been that I wanted to build a new kind of instrument, a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Back in 1983 when Binnig and Rohrer published their first scanning tunneling microscope image with atomic resolution, I realized the minute I saw it that this could transform the way we could think about statistical mechanics on surfaces. Because instead of measuring correlation functions, which is what you do with electron diffraction, it’s actually possible to see the distribution of atoms and molecules. That was, potentially, a tremendous breakthrough in capability.
I was advised that building such an instrument was too much for an assistant professor, but I was stubborn. It took me six or seven years to first, get funding; second, to make an instrument work; and finally, to develop the procedures for good experiments. But once we started doing experiments, we could see the actual distribution of atoms on a surface, it was incredibly exciting. I was particularly interested in line defects that occur on surfaces as the boundary between two atomic layers. They occur on all surfaces and they’re essential components of reactions, crystal growth and faceting. Because scanning tunneling microscopy was a new technique, this was another situation where the experimental space was wide open. Nobody has been able to look at these types of structures before with this resolution and flexibility. But people had thought about it theoretically, so there was a solid basis on which to begin designing good, solid experiments.
So, this was really frontier science at this point.
It was so exciting (laughter). It was amazing, yeah.
Ellen, also at this time, you’re starting to really develop your skills as a director of scientific collaborations that have a major component of federal funding to them.
Oh, yes (laughter). So, that happened- it was not my goal in life to become a manager, but for the kind of work that I was doing, I needed to work with theorists to interpret and develop the quantitative interpretations of what we were seeing, and with other experimentalists to expand to more physical systems. So, I always wanted to work collaboratively. Unfortunately, it was hard to do that with individual-investigator grants. So basically, to keep that collaborative activity going, I had to go for group grants or center grants. We were able to start out with NSF materials research group funding. There were five or six of us working together collaboratively, about half and half experiment and theory, and it was so productive. But then NSF rolled the materials research group program along with the materials research laboratories program into the new Materials Research Science and Engineering Center program. And so, my choice was either to propose to MRSEC, which had a lot of requirements outside of core research, or not have my collaborative research (laughter). So, we proposed to MRSEC with two interdisciplinary groups: one focused on surface properties, phase transitions, critical phenomena, dynamic processes; and the other was on metal oxide superconducting materials, another hot area at that time.
If we can go back, can you explain a little more about why theory was so important at this particular stage, in terms of the kinds of things that you were seeing?
Sure. Basically – using a scanning tunneling microscope, we could measure the distribution of atomic positions along the line boundary. The lines weren’t straight- thermal processes, essentially entropy, drives a certain amount of disorder. Also, if the lines are close together, that constrains the amount of thermally driven wandering. Some aspects of the underpinning statistical mechanics had been worked out years earlier, so there were predictions to check. But we had to design the experiments and/or expand the theoretical description to make a clear connection. I was fortunate to work with a talented group of theorists, including Norm Bartelt, Sankar Das Sarma, Ted Einstein and John Weeks. We would consider what kind of mechanisms could be acting, what kinds of correlation functions would be needed to differentiate them, or and what experimental design we would need to get at these underpinning mechanisms. So, we were pushing understanding of how you relate the theory to what can be observed.
What was the origins of the collaboration with NIST? How did that come about?
With NIST? Ah, okay. That was a bit later, and it had to do with nanoscience. Beginning in the late nineties it was apparent that controlled synthesis and characterization at the nanometer scale had become possible and was opening opportunities that people hadn’t believed were possible even ten years earlier. The National Nanotechnology Initiative was established in 2000 and NIST developed strong activity in their materials science programs and in their fab lab related to nanoscience and nanophysics. The collaboration came about because at Maryland we had been reshaping our materials research science and engineering center to be more nanoscience oriented.
Who were some of your prominent graduate students during this time? Before you went to BP, who were some of the people that were really doing exciting things and would have successful careers from there?
I had a lot of great graduate students. For instance, Bob Hwang was one of the first graduate students I worked with. I co-advised him with Bob Park on his thesis on 2-d phase transitions. He went off to Sandia and became a team leader for a powerful surface science group. He then moved into clean energy technology. I really enjoyed watching his career. I won’t list all my students but jumping to the end, one of my last students, Jian Ho Chen did seminal work on the influence of defects and impurities on the electronic properties of graphene. He’s now a tenured professor at Peking University.
And then I had students who went off and did completely different things. For instance, Yunong Yang, who did lovely work on the structural properties of silicon surfaces, took his analytical skills to Wall Street as a stock advisor.
Ellen, as you get further enmeshed in management and bureaucracy and things like that, how did you stay close to the science? What were some of your mechanisms to stay involved in the research and the literature?
It certainly got harder and harder. As is usual, I had weekly meetings with my group and meetings with individual students. I increasingly relied on post-docs and research scientists to help train and mentor the young students, and I remained closely engaged with writing papers and data analysis.
Yeah. And what were some of the main trends in the early 2000s in your field? What were some of the new big questions that were being asked?
(Laughter) By the early 2000s, we were moving into exploring more complex structures and new materials systems where interfaces were important to the desired properties
From the simple line boundaries that occupied a lot of our attention in the early1990s, by then, we were looking at how the lines combined into more complex structures. For instance, how do you go from understanding a simple line boundary to understanding stacked layers with interacting boundaries in a mound or a disk or the evolution of a facet on a surface? At that point, we were really looking at what we could understand in terms of the evolution growth and behavior of bigger structures, but still making that relationship relate to parameters derived from atomic scale measurements. A question was how far can you push this microscopic to macroscopic understanding?
Yeah. And then the next big question in your trajectory is BP. How does BP come about for you?
(Laughter) Okay, that was really an unexpected opportunity.
Were you looking for something new? Were you looking to change it up a little bit?
I sort of had been. I had been of thinking about moving along, finding some new challenges. Things were going really well, and it was exciting, but it was hard, and the challenges were increasingly administrative. One of my colleagues from another part of my life, Steve Koonin, had been the chief scientist at BP, and left to become the head of science at Department of Energy at the beginning of the Obama administration, I imagine my name was suggested as a person who would be of interest, and I received a phone call asking if I would be interested in applying for the position. For context, going back to my college years and earlier I was intensely motivated by environmental issues. In fact, I did consider starting in environmental science as I was moving into college. So, I was emotionally engaged with environmental issues, and BP was heavily engaged with what was called “alternative energy-”
-ways of addressing clean energy.
I remember. They were “Beyond Petroleum” at some point.
They were nicknamed “Beyond Petroleum” for a while. So, when I got the call from BP asking if I’d like to consider the job, my first thought was, “Well, this is nuts.” Then my second thought was, “Well, my kids have graduated from high school. They’re off to college and graduate school. I have good funding so my students can continue to be supported and be mentored by my collaborators.” I kept thinking about all the ways I could manage these things. So finally, I decided I’d like to be considered” (laughter).
What about your husband? What considerations did he have in terms of a move?
Well, he was not thrilled about having me move, even temporarily, to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. But he traveled a lot because he was involved in many international collaborations and conferences, and when I went to BP it turned out I also traveled a lot. So, we were able to arrange many short visits, both him coming to London and me stopping in Maryland on my way to U.S. meetings. So, while it wasn’t ideal it was a limited term, and we thought we could manage it.
Now, the title “Chief Scientist for BP” can mean a few things. Does BP have- do they have, like, a basic science lab? Like for example, I know that Exxon looked at what Bell Labs did, and they said, “We want to have that for energy.” Was BP- was it that kind of a job? Were you heading a basic science lab, or were you the scientific advisor for the corporate interests of BP?
Yeah, somewhere in between those things. BP, at one time, had had the corporate kind of Bell Labs, EXXON model of a research laboratory and had moved away from it to have a more distributed form of doing its research. So, when I joined, they had different small research units strategically positioned around the world and associated with their different business interests. These included petrochemicals, refining, seismic imaging, lubricants, and biofuels. As the chief scientist I worked for the head of group technology, David Eyton. Group technology’s job was to oversee and coordinate the activities of all the different research functions. The businesses were running them, but we were charged with oversight and reported to the Board of Directors. We did quarterly reviews rotating among all the research units, so I learned a huge amount about the energy business by being at BP (laughter).
Ellen, I’m curious if- you know, in the discussions leading up to your decision to accept the job, if you made clear that you had these environmental interests, and that this would be an opportunity for you to express them in certain ways.
Yes. In fact, that was part of the original discussions, and one of the projects that I picked up when I moved into BP was called the Energy Sustainability Challenge. Under that program, we funded several university groups to do research on water, land, air, and minerals impacts of production of the different energy sources- not just oil and gas, but also biofuels, wind and solar, etcetera. And that was fascinating. So, I did have the chance to work on those topics so important to me. During the time I was there, I developed a very nice, I think talk about clean energy, how it works, what its prospects are and how it fits into the whole world energy system. I gave that talk at many different places, and BP supported me to do that.
In what ways, Ellen, did the crisis with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill- in what ways was that sort of useful to you in terms of looking for ways to push BP, you know, beyond petroleum? Would that have been a catalyzing moment for BP to say, “We have to look beyond petroleum,” like, literally?
I’d been there for three months when the oil spill happened. It was an existential crisis for the company.
Everyone there was shaken to their boots by the spill. Certainly, during the years after the oil spill, BP was engaged with stopping the flow, staying alive as a company and the evaluating the future. I’m really pleased to see that in the ensuing years, their earlier focus and commitment to alternative energy or climate-change type issues has come roaring back.
I was excited to see Bernard Looney’s announcements about their climate initiative and what BP is doing now. But it took a long time. That was just such a hard, traumatic time.
Yeah. And I guess my question there was: in terms of it being a catalyzing moment, simply to avoid future oil spills, the best way to do that is to sort of not be in the oil business. Right?
There was a lot of public commentary on that.
What was your role as chief scientist? I mean, I know you were only there for three months, but how might you have been able to sort of productively contribute to BP’s response?
So, I actually did do something constructive. Very shortly after the oil spill, BP volunteered to set up a very large fund for basic research on the Gulf of Mexico and the impacts of the oil spill. They pledged fifty million a year for ten years, and they asked me to help get that working (laughter). And so, I did – with one of the first steps being to recruit Rita Colwell, former director of NSF and a Distinguished University Professor at Maryland to lead the program. That program, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, ran for ten years. It just had its closeout meeting in Tampa in February of 2020. I was at the meeting just before everything shut down with COVID. So, I was able to see the end results of ten years of Gulf of Mexico research - a huge amount of work understanding the impacts of the oil spill. (see: https://gulfresearchinitiative.org/oil-spill-research-consortium-publishes-summary-highlights-of-their-findings/ )
What were some of your other accomplishments as chief scientist at BP?
As I said, I was able to work on the Sustainability Initiative, and that was very exciting. We published three booklets (on water, biofuels and minerals), and did a lot of work engaging with the universities on that. One internal accomplishment that I’m (laughter) proud of was simply helping BP set up a centralized, digital scientific library. So, when I got there, there wasn’t any central library – journals were distributed among the different research units. So, we set up a new system so that all the researchers in BP could have access to online journals. We also did many studies looking at cutting-edge areas that the company could invest in. One example was that a hard look at opportunities in areas cutting across data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. We looked hard at that field, probably in 2013 or so and made a strong recommendation for pushed the company to make a major investment which I believe they did. Getting ahead of the curve and understanding where something new is coming along that can make a big difference to the company is a major challenge for industrial technology officers, and a very interesting component of my job as chief scientist.
Ellen, what was the sort of cultural appreciation for climate change at BP? In other words, you know, there’s the impetus that clean energy is the way of the future, just because of market-driven forces. There’s the concern that burning fossil fuels poses an existential threat to civilization. And of course, there’s good public relations to becoming that kind of a company. So, I’m just curious, in terms of, from your perspective, how climate change was perceived institutionally, or culturally, from within, at BP.
I think first of all, BP is a British company. We were sitting in London, and the whole climate discussion was, I would say, more advanced and more culturally accepted in Europe then, and probably now, than it has been in the United States.
And so, the people who were at the head of BP were well engaged with those types of discussions and understood where they were going.
So, there’s no sort of denialism that you’re going to see from oil companies in Houston, for example, that are on record continuing to sow doubt about these things?
No. BP was the first oil company to say: climate change is real. And I don’t think they have ever backed down from that- BP has consistently publicly held the position that there should be a carbon price. They wanted to see some policy consistency within which a company could work and survive while doing the right thing.
Yeah. I’m curious, Ellen, of course, the causal relationship between burning fossil fuels and climate change is rather simple, but the science of climate change is extraordinarily complex.
I wonder if that was part of your portfolio, to sort of be the point person on the very broad and complex ways that we understand how the climate changes.
Well certainly, one of the things that my office was responsible for was the company’s university relationships, and one that I really enjoyed was the Princeton Climate Mitigation Institute. BP had been funding them for many years, we had annual meetings with them. BP took the research outcomes and advice from CMI seriously.
Was it personally important for you to remain connected to teaching and university life? Is that how Imperial College sort of came together for you?
Imperial is a great University and I was honored to have a visiting appointment there. When I joined BP, I thought I could remain somewhat engaged with research. The reality was, I couldn’t. I quickly recognized that the kind of very intense engagement I’d had in the past, working on papers and really being deeply engaged with scientific issues, just wasn’t possible with the responsibilities I had at BP.
Now, is four years about the average term for a chief scientist at BP? Did you think you would stay shorter or longer than you ended up being there?
I figured five years would be the typical term. My tenure was cut a bit shorter than that when I got the phone call from Ernest Moniz, the incoming Secretary of Energy, asking me if I’d like to consider working for him.
What do you see as sort of the long-term impact of your work at BP, in terms of where the company is today, where it might not have been, you know, absent the kinds of things you wanted to do there?
I’d like to think that I strengthened their research infrastructure, gave it impetus, and helped sell the ideas that having a kind of longer-term focus on research was fundamentally important to the future of the company.
Yeah. Now, did you know Secretary Moniz before this phone call?
Yes. I’d known him for many years.
Well, I knew him from many years earlier, when I considered applying for a position at MIT. Then while at BP I visited MIT several times through the MIT Energy Initiative and had given some talks there. So, I knew Secretary Moniz, or at that point, Professor Moniz.
When he called you to ask to be senior advisor, what kind of portfolio did you envision this position having?
Actually, the senior advisor position was a temporary position while I was waiting for Senate Confirmation. The position he called me about was the director of ARPA-E.
Oh, I see. I see.
I knew about ARPA-E and I was really excited (laughter) to have the opportunity to apply for that position. However, that position is a Presidential appointment and has to be confirmed by the Senate. At that point, in the second term of the Obama administration, all the Senate-approved presidential appointments were being delayed-
-with political issues in the Senate. So, I went through my confirmation hearing in December of 2013, and then waited. But by March, April of 2014, it was clear I couldn’t be effective at BP as a ‘lame duck’. So, I called the secretary and he suggested I come to DOE as a senior advisor while waiting for confirmation. We talked about the work I could do and decided I would work on tech transfer and innovation issues.
So, I came to DOE. It was very useful to get to know people in DOE Headquarters and see how the place ran. Even though I really wished I was at ARPA-E, it was a useful experience. So, I did that for seven or eight months during which I proposed and helped establish the new Office of Technology Transitions. I inally confirmed for the appoint as Director of ARPA-E in December of 2014.
Ellen, how did you prepare for the confirmation? And what was the overall experience like for you?
For the confirmation hearing?
Oh, okay. So, that was handled formally, as with many things I’d also experienced at BP. You shouldn’t go into something like that without some structured preparation. DOE had a “red team” preparation, where I sat down with a team of people who were familiar with what would happen, or could happen, in the hearing. We went over the different kinds of topics, the kinds of questions I might be asked, how I would answer them. I was coached: Answer briefly. Answer directly. Don’t try to explain (laughter). You’re not going to have much time. Also, I had to prepare a brief statement, which I read out at the beginning of the hearing. Fortunately for me, the way it worked out is that there were four people having their confirmation hearing in the meeting -: two of us for DOE, and two others for the USGS. And it turns out that the USGS appointees had very tough questioning, and the two of us for DOE were treated relatively lightly.
Ellen, what was compelling to you about leading ARPA-E? What was the kinds of things that they were doing, and why was that exciting to you, in terms of what you brought to the table?
Well, first of all, I was really excited to be able to focus completely and without doubt on clean energy and climate mitigation topics, so-
Knowing, of course, that you had a president that was committed to these issues.
Right. Yeah. But that was great. But the other thing was, as a technologist, being in an agency that says, “Yes, we can use technology. We can use advances and new cutting-edge thinking to make a difference to help save the world,” who wouldn’t want to do that?
That’s kind of every scientist’s dream, using our capabilities to save the world.
Did you continue working closely with Secretary Moniz in this position, once you got in as director?
I reported to the Secretary. Obviously, the Secretary of Energy is a very busy man, and as you know, he also was very actively engaged in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
I had monthly meetings with him, and he would laugh and say, “You’re the only one of my direct reports that comes in and talked about technology every month” (laughter). I’d always bring in one of our program directors, and we’d have a technical discussion about some interesting topic that we were doing in ARPA-E, and it was a lot of fun, because Secretary Moniz is a very sharp man.
Ellen, for better or worse, what were some of the things that you inherited at ARPA-E that you put to your benefit, in terms of the kinds of things that you wanted to accomplish, and what were some things that perhaps you saw as challenges that you needed to improve or work through?
Let’s see here. One of the challenges was that ARPA-E’s budget had been static for several years, while the opportunities to build on previous work were growing. For context, the way ARPA-E works is that program directors are recruited, and they build on their knowledge and a lot of research to propose an area where there is an opportunity with a focused investment to make a big difference. For the best ideas, we’d establish a program with a budget typically of thirty million over three years. We’d competitively select ten or fifteen projects in that program, and the program directors would mentor the project teams and assess their progress. Some of the projects would show real potential to deliver a commercially viable product that could make a difference in improving efficiency or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But having a product that’s technical outstanding isn’t enough. The ARPA-E funding process specifically recognizes that and is set up to help the project teams develop commercialization pathways. Those teams had to work through questions such as: how much will it cost? What’s our supply chain going to be? How much will it really reduce emissions? And so on. But nevertheless, the teams would get done with their three years of ARPA-E funding, and still need time to demonstrate reliability, scale up in manufacturing, and find a first market. It was clear that to fully deliver the value of the initial investment, ARPA-E needed additional transitional programs to accelerate growth of the successful projects. We developed the strategic plan for such activity but didn’t immediately get the buy-in for budget growth.
But now, ARPA-E is doing really well (laughter). Its budget has not quite doubled and the agency has been able to broaden its support mechanisms to for transitional programs that help promising technologies move forward on commercialization and attract private-sector investment.
Ellen, who were some of the most important institutional or agency collaborators for ARPA-E, both within the federal government and in private industry and academic research?
We had a good relationship with the Department of Defense. They have some significant issues with the ability to maintain their bases in the States, and their ability to deliver energy to frontline bases in areas of conflict.
We also worked with USDA on our agriculturally oriented projects; and with the Department of Transportation on a great project on transportation networks. These are examples – it was standard for us to reach out to other government agencies and generally had good reactions.
Ellen, what were some of the breakout technologies at ARPA-E that most sort of fully actualized the mandate that you felt you had to push these things forward?
Well, there were a lot of projects, small to large, that were exciting. One of the projects I really liked was Sky Cooling. This is a technology that basically takes waste heat and sends it to outer space. Does that sound crazy? (laughter)
Sounds like science fiction.
But it’s based on the simple property that warm objects emit infra-red radiation. People have known for a long time that if you take a warm object and let it sit out on a clear night, it can cool down to below the ambient temperature. This is a result of some of the thermal energy being released as infra-red photons and traveling out into outer space, it’s called radiant cooling. Sky Cooling used nanofabrication approaches to create tailored materials that had the property of reflecting sunlight while still emitting in the infra-red. They demonstrated cooling can happen during the day in full sunlight. When I first heard about this, I said, “Oh! I want that on the roof of my car!” (laughter). Following Sky Cooling’s success, there have been a number of other companies that have developed other approaches to achieve daytime radiant cooling.
Another one was SLIPS (now, Adaptive Surface Technologies) from Joanna Eisenberg’s group at Harvard. This small company used biomimetic approaches to develop low-friction surfaces, because friction is causes significant losses of energy efficiency around the world. They looked at the leaf structure of some plants that have very slippery surfaces. They found that the leaf coating so, was a mesh, a nanoscale mesh, with a slippery oil trapped inside the mesh pores. They then mimicked that structure with artificial materials: plastics and silicon, oils. The result was the slipperiest (lowest friction) surface ever reported. After they published the result, they looked for applications. It turns out that defrosting freezers is a very energy-intensive process, and part of the problem is, the ice won’t fall off the cooling coils. So, it turned out that a promising early application of their technology was to coat cooling coils in freezers. That doesn’t sound very sexy, but it’s amazing and significant for reducing emissions. And there are many other applications.
And they add up.
They all add up. And so, I’ll just mention you one more, since I mentioned agriculturally oriented projects above. It turns out that people’s activities in agriculture, over millennia, have really changed the nature of soil. In particular, the amount of carbon stored in soil has dramatically gone down wherever there’s agriculture. And if all that carbon were back in the soil right now, the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere, which, right now, is about 400 ppm — would be 65 ppm lower.
So, it would make a big difference if you could put the carbon back in the soil. One of ARPA-E’s programs, called ROOTS, was set up to figure out: how to breed crop plants that have deeper, stronger roots that would enhance carbon storage. One of the technological issues in that plan is that plant breeding depends on phenotyping, you have to be able to measure the characteristics you want and can only do that if you can see the roots. So, a large of the ROOTS program was to develop technologies for in-situ imaging, characterizing the roots while they were still in the ground. An amazing array of technologies were proposed, including X-ray fluorescence, MRI, measuring ground resistance with multiple probes This is a great example of ARPA-E being all about innovation and change
Ellen, your tenure as director came, of course, surrounding the Paris Climate Accord.
And I’m curious, you know, I guess two questions there. First, in order to commit to the kind of reduction in fossil fuels, you need to have an energy policy with a plan in place to continue growing your economy without using petroleum.
So, I’m curious where ARPA-E, and you specifically, were situated within that broader conversation in the government about moving forward nationally beyond oil, essentially.
That was an exciting time, DOE’s technology and policy group, was doing analyses and assessments and analyses for the US, and similar work was going on all around the world. ARPA-E was using those assessments to evaluate the value of potential new programs, and it also served as the demonstration that, yes, we can make these innovations that the world needs. Being in a position to demonstrate new technologies and predict how much they would reduce CO2 emissions was an important part of the discussion. We have to understand that there is a path to getting where you need to be.
Yeah. What was your perspective on the commitments that the Obama administration made at Paris? Did you think that they were realistic? Did you think that they were not ambitious enough? What were your opinions at the time?
The specific commitment that I paid the most attention to was the idea that all the participating countries would double their budget for clean energy R&D. If that had happened, it would have had an accelerating impact. But it didn’t happen. The U.S. didn’t buy into that doubling and many other countries didn’t buy into it either. More generally, the national commitments weren’t sufficient to meet the goal of holding the world’s average temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees. But change in human systems doesn’t happen instantaneously and the worldwide commitments set up in the Paris Accord set up a process that would allow future stronger commitments.
Were you prepared to stay on in a Hillary Clinton administration? Was that something that you would have liked to do?
It’s generally not the case that presidential appointees are asked to stay on. I would have been delighted to stay and help with the transition but would expect that the new Secretary of Energy would have wanted to bring in his or her own people.
You were not in talks with the Clinton folks about a possible position in a Clinton administration?
No. I don’t think they would have gotten to that level of appointments before the election. They would have been considering candidates for the Secretary of Energy, who would have made the recommendation for the ARPA-E director. If a miracle had occurred and I’d been asked to stay on as director, that would have been amazing. But [laughs] I really didn’t think that was going to happen.
So, you felt you would have? I mean, there was more work for you to do.
There were things that you were still engaged in.
Yeah. ARPA-E is the best job in the world (laughter) and there are still great needs for new technological approaches, especially in areas like industry, that are hard to decarbonize.
(Laughter) So, that must have been hard for you.
Yeah, it was hard to leave, but not a surprise in any way.
In terms of taking solace in what you accomplished, what were some of the things that you thought would survive the very clear positions the Trump administration was taking on climate change and things like that?
Well, initially the situation for ARPA-E was terrifying, because you the new administration, in their first budget, proposed zeroing out ARPA-E and shutting it down. Fortunately, Congress not only stepped up and stopped that, but also started increasing funding for ARPA-E. But (laughter) there was a period there where it really was not clear that ARPA-E was going to survive. And it hasn’t been a healthy situation to have the administration, year after year, propose closing down ARPA-E
Yeah. And they’re sort of actively hostile to alternatives to fossil fuel.
Yeah. Yeah. But ARPA-E has managed to continue to do exciting things to drive energy efficiency. Also, ARPA-E has been able to support programs in nuclear power- fortunately, that’s an area that the administration was not hostile to, and one that I believe is important. So, ARPA-E has managed to continue to have positive impacts on greenhouse gas reductions.
What were you thinking when you stepped down from director? What were some of the opportunities that you might have been considering at that point? Did you always know that you wanted to come back to Maryland?
It turns out that was a hard time for me. My husband was ill with cancer, and I wasn’t in a good place to think about the future.
How did you come back to Maryland? What were the terms to return?
Basically, Maryland was great to me. When I left, I had a fairly open-ended leave without absence, and basically, they just welcomed me back as a professor.
Oh, that’s so nice.
It was wonderful.
It was, in many ways, like coming home. Right?
Yes, it was.
And what did you come back to? What department?
I came back to IPST [Institute for Physical Science and Technology]. So, while my tenure home is in physics, I decided I wanted to come home and sit in the IPST building. I started engaging with the public policy department on climate change issues, and with the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute on clean energy innovation. I also developed a new class, which I ‘ve now taught three times, on energy innovation and policy. It’s a class where we bring together about half and half science and engineering students and public policy students to work together and learn about what it takes to make clean energy innovation have impact. That has been hugely enjoyable. The students do a team project. Two or three students would do a project on their choice of an innovative technology, and they’d evaluate how does it work? What’s the carbon mitigation potential? What are the policies that would be needed to make it work? How much would it cost? How much could it cost and still be competitive? Their reports and presentations have been a pleasure.
Ellen, teaching undergraduates nowadays, you no longer have to convince them that climate change is real. I mean, it’s happening before our very eyes. Right?
Right, but also, they’ve heard a lot of conflicting commentary. I hope my class and talks provide them some tools to evaluate what they see on-line.
What are- you know, with that in mind, what are some of the most important things that you think should be conveyed to undergraduates about climate change, if the basis is that it’s real? It’s like, “Okay, it’s real. Now here’s what you need to know”?
Well, it depends who I’m talking to. When I talk to undergraduate physics majors, which I often do, I do spend some time explaining the basic physical mechanisms to them. As scientists, it’s important that they maintain the discipline of understanding the scientific basis.
The fact that I can stand up and in fifteen minutes, outline the basic science makes a huge difference for them. So, that’s very important on the technical side, and then both for technical and policy students, I think the most important thing is to get people to understand the difference between conceptually important and doable.
So, (laughter)- both at ARPA-E and in my continuing life, so many times, people come to me and say, “I’ve got this idea that’s going to address this very important problem.” And I keep saying, “I understand the problem is important. Tell me why your technology is going to work.” And they get angry. It’s hard to get people to disentangle the fact that just because I want to solve a problem doesn’t mean I necessarily can. That’s one of the things I try to teach in the class, is to really help them be in a position where they can understand and communicate the difference between “this is an important problem that needs to be solved” and “this is a real mechanism that has the potential to solve this important problem.”
Yeah. And is that how you convey optimism? Because there’s so much doom and gloom surrounding climate change, particularly for a twenty-year-old who’s going to look at the next sixty, eighty years of their life and say, you know: well, what am I supposed to do? How do you sort of advise against giving up and saying, “it’s too late” and “what’s the point”? What are your basic pieces of advice in that regard?
Okay. Well, first of all, there’s a fundamental philosophy I have, which is that trying is better than not trying (laughter). Giving up to doom and gloom is not an option I want anybody to consider. And then more concretely: look at how much things have changed in just a few decades. Less than ten years ago, I was convinced that electric vehicles were a long way from being viable because it was going to take another twenty years for the batteries to be good enough. And that’s no longer the case, now electric vehicles are competitive. Investment in technology, and innovation, really does work, and it grows, and it makes a difference. So, I try to convey to them that idea that you have to look at technology skeptically, because by doing so you can identify the points of innovation that are needed for success, and push those.
Yeah. When you came back to Maryland, since you were involved in policy for so long, was this an opportunity for you to get back into the research, or did you want to stay in policy, but in the university environment?
Yeah, I wanted to stay at the technology-policy interface. And when I was offered the position as the director of the Earth Systems Science Interdisciplinary Center, I was delighted to be able to support an activity that’s so closely related to clean energy and climate change.
Now, are you the inaugural director for the center?
Oh, no. No. The center has been around for about twenty years.
And what were some of your goals and objectives in accepting this position? What did you want to do in this role?
Let’s start with a little context. Basically, the center works closely with NOAA and with NASA, analyzing satellite data and relating it to processes of climate change and atmospheric change. What I would like to do over the next four or five years is guide the Center through the opportunities to science to help deliver practical solutions to climate mitigation and adaptation. The powerful observational and analytical tools of Earth Systems Science increasingly make this feasible at regional scales where people feel the immediate impacts of climate change. Not just, “This is good for the globe,” but “This is good for City X,” and “How is this going to impact your life?” and “How do you respond?” So, there will be aspects here, both of mitigation and adaptation.
And what are some of the publications or output that the center produces?
So, the center- all the scientists publish. They publish in public journals, and then as part of NASA and NOAA, there’s are data outputs that are made available for the use of other scientists and for the general public.
And what are some of the educational components to the center? Is it a place where undergraduates can take classes, where postdocs can do their work? What’s the student basis for the center?
The educational basis is primarily at the postdoc level, and we collaborate with academic departments - Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, Geology and Geographical Sciences- that provide undergraduate and graduate training. We have a lot of people who come in as postdocs and have the opportunity to work directly with NOAA or NASA scientists. This is a significant training route for people coming out of graduate school to engage directly with development and analysis of satellite data.
And so, to look forward to the next four or five years, as you think about your goals and objectives, what would you like to accomplish? What is the best-case scenario for you in this position?
There are several things I’d like to include as we move toward the goals I outlined before. One is to expand our outreach, through the production of products that are of direct, clear use to people who have to make decisions. That might be people develop policies on insurance, siting of new real estate developments, planning for urban water systems and so on. I’m looking forward to being able to communicate clear impact at a human level.
Right. Well, Ellen, at this point in the conversation, now that we’ve gotten right up to the present, I want to ask you just a few sort of broadly retrospective questions about your career, and then a forward-facing one.
So, the first one is: of course, you got to policy via science. And so, I wonder how sort of your scientific way of looking at the world has been an asset to the way that you have formulated and assessed best practices in public policy?
Yes. Many of us in science live most of our lives talking primarily to other scientists and believe our decision processes are self-evident. But actually, the analytical way a scientist thinks and looks at the world is not at all the norm in human decision making. Bringing an analytical and skeptical approach is enormously helpful but only when we understand the other perspectives and human context in which it has to be applied. Taking the time and care to do that remains an important part of bridging technology and policy perspectives.
In reflecting on your contributions throughout your career, do you tend to separate out, in your mind, your scientific achievements from your public policy achievements? Or, do you see this as sort of one overall narrative trajectory?
I see it as an overall narrative trajectory that encompasses a lot of change, but each step builds on the steps before.
Yeah. And if we could talk about climate change policy from, you know, all the way back to James Hansen in 1988 introducing to Congress- there’s this thing called global warming, and it’s happening. Right? And it’s like, such an exotic concept, at least, as it’s being introduced in a political environment, even if the science of carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect goes back to the 1950s, if not before that. So, I wonder if you can reflect on- in what ways is the science of climate change, and climate change policy, simply a continuation of this original story from the 1980s? And in what ways is both the advances in the science of how we understand climate change- how that has affected the various policy responses to it?
Okay. So, first of all, I’d like to say: you can go back another hundred years. In fact, Arrhenius and his contemporaries thought a lot about climate issues and starting with the question of why isn’t the Earth an ice ball?
But then you go forward to Hansen, and he tells a compelling story because of the evidence our advancing capabilities made possible. That’s a testament to the strength of the scientific infrastructure in this country that NASA and NOAA and other agencies have been able to deploy and use. So, your question is spot on, the evidence has been essential to developing the policy responses. And our computations capabilities, knowledge and the observations have advanced tremendously since 1988.
Yeah. And the irony, of course, is with all of these technological and computational improvements, year after year after year, carbon emissions go up and up and up. And so, to put your public policy hat back on, why do you think that is? I mean, is this just because we think only in terms of our own lifetimes?
We only think in terms of the short-term benefit of the ongoing economic gain to be had from burning fossil fuels? Or, what else might explain the fact that we have all of this technology to understand exactly what’s happening and how dangerous it is, and yet, how do you understand that?
That relates to some of my comments on the interactions of policy and scientific analysis, we constantly have to consider human responses. In this case we need to make sure that people do see their lives getting better due to clean energy policies. We also, of course, have to distinguish impacts in the developed world from the developing world.
Things are changing, and I have optimism we can develop technical capabilities to drive emissions down. It will take good policy as well to make sure we can give people in developing countries a better future and a better opportunity with clean energy technologies, including not having to breath the ghastly, soot-ridden air of primitive coal-fired power plants
Ellen, for my last question, looking toward the future, do you see any particular point in which there might be a game-changing event where the entire calculation that now drives the cost benefit analysis of clean energy sort of gets rewired? I mean, at what point do we face, either in the developed world or the developing world, certain existential threats that make us say, incremental isn’t good enough, and market-driven forces isn’t good enough, and we need to respond to this in the way that we would respond to an attack on Pearl Harbor, or September eleven, or something like that. Do you see anything happening that might sort of fundamentally rewrite the rules of the game in the way that you have seen this over the many decades that you’ve been involved in these issues? And we say this right now, in September 2020, where we have nonstop hurricanes in the gulf, we have the west coast on fire.
What’s the tipping point, I guess, is really the question- where all of the ways that we’ve been doing it, up until now, we say, “Something else needs to happen.” Or, is it really the- you know, the frog in the slowly warming pot of water?
Oh, I don’t want to believe that we’re that doomed frog. One thing that is new is that more and more private companies are committing to go to zero or net-zero emissions. This includes companies in the energy industry, such as electric power utilities and big oil companies like BP. it gives me some optimism that we may be able to create the anti-tipping point, a new balance aligned with economic drivers that moves us on to a sustainable pathway.
Well, literally for everyone’s sake, I certainly hope you’re right about that (laughter).
Well, so do I. As I said earlier, trying is definitely better than not trying.
Absolutely. Ellen, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I know how extraordinarily busy you are, and it’s an honor to be able to do this. And I’m so happy that we were able to get your insights and recollections down for the historical record.
And I just want to thank you, because you are an amazingly easy person to talk to, and you ask good questions that helped me shape my thoughts.
(Laughter) Well, mission accomplished.