Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Monday, July 23, 2012

CIRES Scientists Earn Presidential Honor

The White House today named CIRES scientists David Noone and Rebecca Washenfelder as recipients of the 2011 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The PECASE award is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists and engineers in the early stages of their careers.

Noone’s award citation acknowledges him for his “innovative use of stable isotope tracers and modeling efforts directed towards an integrated understanding of the cycling of water and carbon dioxide through the atmosphere, and for actively engaging students in cutting-edge research at middle schools.”

“The award is a fabulous honor,” Noone said. “It is a tremendous recognition that I’m delighted to share with the wonderful students and colleagues with whom I work, and it is truly humbling.”
Currently, Noone, a CIRES Fellow, is working with nearly 200 school children to collect rainwater that falls on rooftops. His team then analyzes the samples’ water chemistry to determine where the water came from and eventually what its fate will be. The rainfall data being collected complement other measurements that he makes using advanced laser spectrometers, and together, they provide a critical body of information that is essential for advancing state-of-the-art climate models.

“Water is so pervasive in so many aspects of our environment, but it remains a challenge to understand both how changing climate will alter the water cycle and how changes in the water cycle influence climate,” Noone said.

“Understanding how water moves around in the air and on the land surface—the water cycle—will help us know how to use water more effectively for agriculture, environmental sustainability, and recreation and also improve estimates of regional climate change,” Noone said. “This project is not really possible without combining citizen science—in this case, the help of students—with the work my group is doing in CIRES.”

Noone, who has given talks both in schools and in the local community about his research, sees combining climate research with outreach work as important for both raising awareness about important environmental issues and increasing interest in science. “I really enjoy science. I think it is really exciting, and I like to share that with people,” Noone said. “It is just a lot of great fun figuring out how the natural world works.” He also hopes that his enthusiasm for science will inspire middle-school students to consider careers in science.

An article about his research and involvement with education and outreach, “Science ‘n’ Schools Symbiosis,” will be coming out in the next edition of CIRES’s science magazine, Spheres (September 2012 edition). To see a presentation about his work, click here, and for a video about his work, click here.

Washenfelder’s award citation acknowledges her for her “pioneering work in developing and applying new measurement techniques to study atmospheric chemistry related to climate and air quality and for commitment to science education and outreach.” 

Washenfelder, an atmospheric chemist, developed a new instrument that uses light to measure the concentrations of trace pollutants in the atmosphere. She used this instrument during field measurements in Los Angeles, Calif., to study the sources and composition of aerosols—tiny airborne particles that can impact both air quality and climate. It is hoped that Washenfelder’s new instrument can be extended for field measurements of other atmospheric species as well.

Washenfelder has also been actively involved in education and outreach, working to communicate the importance and progress of her research to the public. To read an article on her research, work that has helped improve air quality in Houston, Texas, click here. To listen below to a podcast with Washenfelder:

Washenfelder, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in environmental science and engineering from the California Institute of Technology, says she first became interested in her chosen career while a student at Pomona College in Los Angeles County. As she ran around the college’s track, she says, she sometimes couldn’t even see the nearby San Gabriel Mountains because of the smog. “There would just be a brown haze and no mountains,” Washenfelder said. “I was fascinated by the air quality and decided that I wanted to study atmospheric chemistry.”

“I am honored to receive this award,” she said.

Both Washenfelder and Noone are faculty scientists with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder; Noone also serves on the faculty of CU’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. According to William Lewis, CIRES Interim Director, “these two outstanding young scientists are making discoveries of great fundamental and practical importance; they illustrate the great strength of environmental sciences at University of Colorado Boulder as developed through collaboration between CU’s institutes and departments.”

David Noone, CIRES Fellow,, 303-735-6073
Rebecca Washenfelder, CIRES scientist,, 303-497-4810 
Karin Vergoth, CIRES,, 303-497-5125