Warren Washington: Taking the Lead on Global Warming

From The HistoryMakers series: A top African-American scientist recalls his path to success.

Warren Washington (Courtesy of The HistoryMakers)

This is the fourth installment of our collaboration with the "Back to School With The HistoryMakers" event on Friday, Sept. 23, when some 500 renowned African Americans -- from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to Common -- will speak at schools around the country.

Warren Washington is one of the world's leading experts on climate change and global warming. He was developer of one the earliest computer models of the Earth's climate and has been a science adviser to four presidents, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. A winner of numerous awards, he was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009 and was one of 10 distinguished researchers selected by President Obama for the National Medal of Science in 2010.

I remember my father once sitting me down to ask me an important question. "Now, son, tell me what you really do," he said. My work involves a lot of theory and math and physical laws that are hard for a layperson to understand, so it is perfectly natural that my father did not understand exactly what I do. But one thing is for sure: I'm doing what he wanted me to do.

Not in a specific sense. My father is a college graduate, but he worked as a waiter for a railroad -- it was the only kind of work a black man could get in the 1920s -- so he had no professional experience to guide me into a job as a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. But in a general sense, my parents always expected I would have a successful career.

Hard work and discipline were not only expected; it was demanded, growing up in the household of Edwin and Dorothy Washington. My father graduated from Talladega College in 1928. He was an intelligent, well-read man who could speak knowledgeably about current events. He moved us from Texas to Portland, Oregon, in search of a cooler climate and less discrimination. He took his upward mobility seriously.

My parents bought a house in a mostly white neighborhood, and I remember my mother telling me that my father would sit out on the front porch with a gun to kind of let people know that he wasn't going to be run out of the neighborhood.  

My mother, who had a nursing degree and worked as a nurse for a few years, was a very articulate lady. She was a good mentor for all of us -- my four brothers and me. She was rather strict. She also taught us all how to use the English language in the proper way. She was kind of a formal lady in many ways, very concerned about our schoolwork and wanting us to do well in school.

One of the most profound influences on me as a young man was a high school chemistry teacher who got me started in science. She wouldn't lecture; she would demonstrate. For example, she would put a tennis ball into liquid nitrogen, throw it on the floor, and it would shatter. Every day she would do some kind of experiment or change the colors of something. Or she would make things that smelled bad or smelled good. And so you got a sense of the excitement of discovery.

I went to Oregon State University. I graduated in 1958 with a bachelor's in physics.  I came back and finished up my master's at Oregon State, and I then immediately went to Penn State University for a Ph.D. I got my Ph.D. officially in 1964.

I began working at NCAR in 1963, even before I got my doctorate. While my career at NCAR was progressing, I began developing this other sort of broader career in science policy and trying to change or improve things in science in general.