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Meet the AMS - Wendy M. Thomas, Policy Program Associate
The majority of people who enter the science policy arena tend to be scientists who later study policy, but Wendy Thomas took the opposite route. “I began as a policy analyst,” she explains, “and later became an atmospheric scientist to become more effective in the art and craft of science policy.”
Wendy initially became involved with the AMS Atmospheric Policy Program (APP) through the Summer Policy Colloquium in 2001, and officially joined the staff in August 2006.
Wendy studied foreign policy as an undergraduate at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Her goal was to major in environmental policy, but at the time the environmental program emphasized nuclear–environmental issues.
“Though important, the courses didn’t satisfy my thirst for understanding how to resolve common transborder issues such as pollution transport or water quality,” Wendy says.
Heeding the call to continue on her path to work in science policy, she later took evening courses in Johns Hopkins’s science policy program to obtain an advanced science foundation. Impressed with the part-time program, she searched for a full-time program that matched her interests of climate and policy, and in 1997 found what she had been looking for in Arizona State University (ASU)’s Geography Department in Tempe, where she studied climatology under Robert Balling, Randy Cerveny, and Andrew Ellis.
The deeply embedded cross-disciplinary culture at ASU and the involvement of her advisor (Ellis) and thesis committee with the neighboring Environmental Fluid Dynamics Department exposed Wendy to several unique research opportunities.
“As a graduate researcher, I worked on a multidisciplinary field experiment concerning ozone formation and dispersion in the complex terrain of Phoenix,” she comments. “I later conducted x-ray analysis of particulate matter as a proxy measure for identifying low-level dispersion flows during the monsoon. The findings of these studies would help to characterize the urban flow dynamics that were then only partially understood.”
Still yearning for more atmospheric research, Wendy traveled farther south to join the Department of Atmospheric Sciences as the University of Arizona in Tucson, and studied under the department’s atmospheric chemist, Eric Betterton. During her graduate tenure there she earned the university Dean’s Award for being a distinguished instructor in meteorology. While completing her doctoral research remains key, Wendy finds great satisfaction in her work in the Policy Program, where her primary activities center upon natural hazards. This involves staying current on the latest science about environmental extremes—such as the issues that underlie the debate on upward trends in hurricane intensity—and working at the public and private sector interfaces to reposition the nation on more of a mitigation-andadaptation course. “Moving society in this direction will take time and patience, especially as the public still somewhat believes that weather and climate forecasts are part science, part magic—mostly the latter,” Wendy says. “Until we are all on terra firma regarding the science, the approach that will most likely yield a more hazard-aware and hazard-prepared nation will be in linking action to the savings associated with adopting certain practices, such as building flood walls or reinforcing building structures to protect against torrential rains, pounding hurricanes, or swirling tornadoes.”
Her most recent outreach effort took place in April of this year when she organized a forum called “Under the Weather: Environmental Extremes and Health Care Delivery,” which was a cross-sector meeting between the private and public health (e.g., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health facilities, and private hospitals) and environmental information (e.g., NOAA, NASA, EPA, and private weather sector) services at the decision-maker level. Wendy notes this forum was important because “Hurricane Katrina packed a real punch, in general, but particularly to our nation’s hospital system.”
“Hospitals and nursing home buildings were illstricken in New Orleans,” she explains, “because they were not given the immunity to hurricaneforce winds and flooding that building retrofitting could have provided against a storm that had been predicted for decades. In neighboring parishes and states, we find that health care had no standards for handling cross-boundary patient surge. It is our responsibility in science policy to make sure that the services are linked so as to benefit the original investors.”
Wendy continues to work with individuals in the health and environmental agencies to build public and private sector partnerships to promote crosssector communication and strategies in the hopes of securing continuity of health care delivery.
In June 2007, Wendy visited New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to open dialogue at the local level. “The city’s OEM focuses on educating the citizens about the vulnerability to natural hazards, in particular to coastal flooding and hurricanes,” she comments. “The city officials are not sitting idle, but are instead working to resolve the fact that even at 100% capability, it will not be able to meet the needs of massive numbers of people—we’re talking an order of magnitude or larger than in New Orleans during Katrina. The NYCOEM model embodies highly exemplary components that could serve as a learning tool for other localities.”
As Wendy continues to work with NOAA, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies, as well as the private sector at the state and local level, it is her goal to educate others about the “best practices” to steer the nation in the right direction “in the midst of a changing climate system that will tend to reveal its adjustments through extreme events.”
Wendy believes, like many AMS members, that society can benefit from the knowledge that the field provides. “I have the ability, in my position at AMS, to reach out to traditional and nontraditional agency partners, as well as other NGOs and the private sector to build a more resilient nation,”
Wendy concludes. “With reasoning that is grounded in best available science, packaged in a usable way, we can help individuals make well-informed, life-saving decisions.” Please consider a donation to the AMS Policy Program. Your contribution will enhance society’s ability to understand and use our community’s science, technology, and services.
If you would like more information on the AMS Policy Program or how you can help, please contact William H. Hooke, the program’s director, at 202-737- 9006, ext. 420, or or Stephanie Armstrong, AMS director of development, at 617-227- 2426, ext. 235.