Rising climate scientist honored by President Obama

UCLA geochemist Aradhna Tripati received the highest honor the United States bestows on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their careers—the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.

Presented earlier this month by former President Barack Obama, the award acknowledges individuals who lead in understanding and confronting a range of challenges, from climate change to health and wellness. Nominated by various federal departments and agencies, awardees are selected for doing research on the frontiers of science and technology, as well as their commitment to community service. Tripati is one of 105 researchers selected for the honor.

Tripati’s work takes her to such far-flung places as central China, Antarctica, and the tropical Pacific to understand and predict global climate patterns. She reconstructs prehistoric climate realities by looking at the record preserved in sediments, fossils, and even individual molecules. These records provide clues about the possible future effects of carbon emissions, a key contributor to climate change. Tripati also investigates the transfer of carbon between land, air and oceans—and how it affects coastal environments and marine life through ocean acidification.

The award also recognized Tripati for her efforts to engage members of underrepresented communities. Her campus lab promotes diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics among high school and college students.

As a young adult, Tripati initially wanted to study law and become a judge. A college class on the environment prompted her switch to science, but she remains focused on work that has a humanistic edge.

 “Science is foundational in a progressive society,” Tripati said.  “It fuels innovation and touches the lives of every person on this planet.”

In the classroom, Tripati is currently teaching a course on the role communications and science plays in societies. Again, she looks to the past for evidence, encouraging students to think critically about how environmental and social justice issues were covered by news outlets in various countries over the past century.

The mid-career award has given Tripati and her students the confidence to keep challenging social and scientific norms.

“I’m deeply appreciative to have my approach to science valued,” Tripati said. “It’s heart-warming to see how this award has affected my current students and alumni from my lab. We are all sharing it with our families and loved ones, and are even more excited and proud of what we are doing.”