Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

CIRES' Jen Kay Wins NSF Early Career Award

University of Colorado Boulder atmospheric scientist Jennifer Kay has been honored with a prestigious CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, worth more than $800,000.

“This is a really big one for me because it’s for five years, a long time, and because it also includes education activities aligned with my research,” said Kay, who heard officially on Thursday she’d gotten the award. “It’s been a great week.”

The NSF Faculty Early Career Development or CAREER award supports junior faculty members who demonstrate excellence in research and who effectively integrate their research with education.

Kay’s research, “Going Global—The Influence of Southern Ocean Albedo on Large-scale Climate Dynamics,” will focus on work to illuminate how processes occurring in remote regions, such as the Southern Ocean, affect global climate.

Kay, who has been using climate models to better understand the planet’s future, is particularly interested in the vexing problem of cloud-climate interactions. Her approach involves better integrating observations, such as measurements made with lidar, or light detection and ranging, with climate models.

Some of her team’s pilot work has shown that, for example, better representing Southern Ocean clouds and other processes in climate models can reduce large cloud and radiation model biases. But including improving the model also increases the climate sensitivity, i.e., the global mean warming in response to a carbon dioxide doubling

“One might presume that Southern Ocean clouds are too remote to impact global warming, but there are strong connections,” Kay said

She’s investigating the same kinds of questions in her education research, which will involve the CIRES Education and Outreach group.

Alysa McCall, Jennifer Kay, Gerrit Wesselink, and CJ Carter get ready to teach Kay's undergraduate class at live from Polar Bear International’s Tundra Buggy One last fall. PBI photo.

“We proposed to look at whether it’s effective to use an emotional hook when working with students to help them understand and retain information about climate change,” Kay said. “Polar bears are that hook.”

The Arctic bears are “cute and charismatic and people love them,” Kay said, which might inspire learning and retention of information. But polar bears are also distant from many learners.

“So students may think, hey, what happens to polar bears doesn’t affect me. But it’s not like what happens to the polar bear is divorced from what’s happening to us,” Kay said. “We just see it in different forms: record heat waves or precipitation, not loss of sea ice habitat.”

Kay, an assistant professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, is also a Fellow of CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. 

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.