Climate change: «Clean energy to protect our atmosphere»

Interview with Antonia Gambacorta, the Italian researcher awarded the "Nasa Goddard 2023 for Outstanding Science."

“Clean energy is the only key to solving the problem of climate change, along with the so-called sequestration of pollutants. We are talking about a rapidly expanding field that requires careful planning and, above all, sustainable global implementation.”

Confirmation of the importance of clean energy in the battle against climate change comes from someone who knows virtually every single particle of the atmosphere. Or nearly every one. NASA researcher Antonia Gambacorta has won this year’s prestigious “NASA Goddard for Outstanding Science” award, which is awarded annually by the U.S. space agency to scientists who have excelled in scientific research.

The “NASA Goddard 2023” award was indeed presented to the Italian researcher who has lived and worked in the United States for over twenty years, precisely for her discoveries in the field of infrared and microwave detection techniques and methods for measuring temperature and atmospheric constituents. In essence, it involves the highly detailed analysis of the Earth’s atmosphere to understand and predict the impact of climate change.

“This award,” she says in an interview with We Build Value, “means a lot to me, but also to my family and all the friends who supported my decision to come to America and who have accompanied me on this journey.”

Studying the atmosphere means analyzing in detail the origin of those pollutants that are at the core of the severe climate shocks of recent years.

“The problem,” explains the NASA researcher, “is the intensification of extreme events and the more frequent occurrence of these events. We had predicted it, and perhaps now we are beginning to feel it on our own skin. We study the Earth globally because all elements are interconnected and influence this thin layer of the atmosphere where we live.”

Why were you awarded this prize?

“The award is the result of research conducted in a new area that opens up great expectations in the field of atmospheric monitoring. It’s a tool that will allow us to observe the atmosphere with much higher resolution than what we can obtain from current instruments. This is a commitment to better understand the evolution of our climate.”

How does this instrument work?

“The starting point is to study atmospheric properties globally through the use of satellites. Satellites have sensors that measure the signal the Earth emits during the cooling process after receiving energy from the sun. The Earth, like all of us, is a body that sweats. If there are elements around that act as a blanket (such as carbon dioxide, Editor’s Note), you sweat more, and therefore the temperature increases.

This is important because having a deep understanding of the processes that occur in the atmosphere helps us to analyze how the current climate is changing and predict what the conditions will be like in 100 years, 200 years.”

How did the decision to move to the United States to pursue your passion for research come about?

“The decision to work in the United States was almost spontaneous. I went to do my thesis at the Department of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Naples Federico II with Professor Spinelli, where I did this research thesis that then put me in contact with NASA Goddard to continue with a research doctorate. I left in July 2002 and arrived here in Maryland to start this research program. I will never forget the first day I entered the NASA gate. I was very intimidated because NASA carries a certain burden of expectations. But already at the entrance, I had my first encounter with American culture, which embraces you.”

How much commitment and dedication are required in scientific research?

“Engaging in research requires a lot of commitment, but it also requires a lot of support to keep going, to believe in it. The beauty of scientific research is examining the paths, understanding, and sometimes realizing that you’ve made mistakes. But sometimes it’s better to make occasional mistakes than to make occasional decisions.”

Are collective consciences ready to seriously address the issue of climate change?

“The problem is the intensification of extreme events and also the more frequent repetition of these events. We had predicted it, and perhaps now we are starting to feel it on our own skin. We study the Earth in a global way because all elements are connected and influence this thin layer of the atmosphere where we live.”

You are an eminent researcher. In your opinion, is there an open issue regarding women in STEM, engaged in scientific disciplines?

“The issue of women in my field, in the scientific and technological field, women in STEM, is a global issue. It leads us to reflect on a need, that of living, of accepting differences because now we are part of a faster society with many more demands, and the problem of gender separation belongs to an outdated society.

Perhaps we should talk about equity, where equity means respecting one’s differences and therefore ensuring equal access to resources for everyone based on their differences.”

What advice would you give to a young person who dreams of working in scientific disciplines?

“To a young person who wants to pursue this career, the career of a scientific researcher, scientist, or engineer, I would advise them to have a lot of curiosity. Human nature excels when it is itself without fear, so being a researcher also means searching for the research of others. That is a very, very important element. However, the most important advice remains to be brave, to embark on this journey, and to have a desire to keep learning until the end.”