Speaking out for climate science, for the first time

Sonali McDermid is worried about the planet’s food supply — and those seeking to eviscerate science

July 11, 2017
Climate scientists today face powerful opposition; Sonali McDermid is ready to fight back. [Image courtesy of Sonali McDermid]

At least one of the tens of thousands of people who marched for science on April 22 never thought she’d be there. An environmental scientist at New York University, Sonali McDermid had always maintained the apolitical exterior typical of researchers. But when Donald Trump was elected, that changed.

McDermid, 33, came prepared for her first-ever protest march, in the company of her husband and in-laws and a handmade sign sporting a Neil deGrasse Tyson quote: “With respect to environmental research, the only thing worse than a blind believer is a seeing denier.” Underneath she wrote: “Save Climate Research.”

When the time came to raise her sign, she was terrified, even though she was surrounded by friends. Finally, she lifted the sign above her head. “Once I did, something clicked,” McDermid says. “It was a really powerful experience because you just feel like there’s two sides of you coming together in a way they haven’t before … But it does make the work intensely more personal than it did prior. And when work becomes personal you want to make it as impactful as possible.”

McDermid’s work could hardly be more ambitious: She’s looking for sustainable ways to feed the 9.5 billion people expected to populate our warming planet by 2050. She uses complex computer models to investigate agriculture in different pockets of the world, especially southern India, and then uses those models to try to answer questions like: When will the optimal planting date be? How much fertilizer should farmers use? How big will harvests be? The answers have direct implications for international policymakers and small-town farmers alike, especially now that climate change has made accurate predictions increasingly crucial.

“Not only do we need to provide food and nutrition security for more people by 2050, we also need to do it without comprising our environment,” McDermid says.

Her recent research predicts how climate change will impact maize production in Tamil Nadu, a state at the southern tip of India where nearly 80 million people live, many of them precariously. Her team investigated possible changes in planting dates, irrigation and fertilizer use. In multiple models simulating various growing conditions, McDermid found that planting earlier to take advantage of a longer growing season yielded more maize. Changes in irrigation and fertilizer use, though, didn’t provide as much of a benefit.

The study shows the importance of using several models, McDermid says. These models aim to assess uncertainty, a thorny issue inherent in climate research. That’s why using multiple simulations is important. If four models display the same trend, and the fifth is an outlier, the majority consensus suggests a valid conclusion.

“This paper is a second-generation type of approach — understanding that we need to use multi-models, that not one of our crop simulation models, whether it be wheat, potato, corn sugarcane, or rice, is a perfect model,” says Jerry Hatfield, a laboratory director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service who has worked with McDermid.

McDermid’s contributions to the crop modeling world are especially important because of her background in climate science, says Bruno Basso, a crop modeler at Michigan State University. “The climate scientists play an important role in a multidisciplinary team. I think she’s been doing great work to help the crop modeling community understand the signature from the climate’s past and future,” Basso says.

As a child growing up suburban New Jersey, McDermid loved hiking and the outdoors but craved to “feel the elements in a really visceral, raw way.” So she flew to the Arizona desert to live in the wilderness and study geology, ecology and space science.

“It was my first time in a landscape that was so stark. I was stung by a scorpion, and you’re just kind of like, this is awesome! This is exactly why I wanted to be outdoors!”

In the desert McDermid noticed there how the plants and animals were adapted to survive under harsh conditions, a fickle environment subject to abrupt transformation. After a flood, for example, lush vegetation would spring up out of nowhere and completely redecorate the landscape. Natural variability, McDermid says, illustrates just how sensitive the earth is. That concept catapulted her toward research on climate change. How will the world respond when those natural changes are rapidly accelerated by humans?

McDermid recalls one research trip to India in 2015, when floodwaters drowned a vast swathe of the country. A year’s worth of rain poured from the skies in a few short weeks, submerging roads and knocking out power lines. “We were trying to get to our field sites, and the water outside on the road was so high it was flowing into the vehicle we were in. It was really dangerous and it was really scary,” McDermid recalls.

Extreme weather events like this storm demonstrate that we can’t afford to let a degree of uncertainty prevent us from preparing for and adapting to our changing climate, she says, adding that “uncertainty doesn’t mean it may not happen, uncertainty means we don’t know how bad it can get.”

Climate deniers seize upon uncertainty to promote their beliefs, arguing that society shouldn’t put blind faith in a science that admits some degree of error or miscalculation – however small. But this argument can mislead the public and help fuel federal cuts to climate research. Trump’s first proposed budget would have slashed funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 43 percent, eviscerating over 50 programs and firing a quarter of the agency’s workforce. Although Congress enacted much smaller cuts instead, the issue will undoubtedly reemerge in September when negotiations for next year’s budget begin.

Historically, it has made sense for scientists to avoid politics, McDermid says, because it might hurt their credibility if they’re perceived as biased. But today’s situation is different. Publicly funded, independent research is under attack, and society cannot rely on the private sector to conduct unbiased research. Objective science, she says, is worth fighting for.

Back in McDermid’s office, the door bursts open and a colleague comes in carrying a large box of pens. She notices me on the couch. “Would you like one?” McDermid explains that the pens are for a teach-in before the March for Science and a debrief discussion afterward. The pens read: “NYU March for Science: Environmental Studies.”

Now that she’s participated in the Women’s March and the People’s Climate March, McDermid recognizes the benefits of activism, even though the recent urgency for protesting can be a bit disheartening.

“Am I sad that I feel like we have to march for facts?” she responds. “The premise is a little sad, but I think it can be pulled into a very positive direction. If it can educate even just one person who comes out to see what’s going on, then I think that will be a success.”

About the Author

Abigail Fagan

Abigail Fagan graduated from the University of Rochester with a major in brain and cognitive science and a minor in English literature. After graduating, she worked for the publishing company Macmillan Learning, helping to develop their science textbooks. She’s also worked as a freelance writer for the World Science Festival and Weill Cornell Medicine. In her spare time, she loves reading, playing board games, and consuming Nutella.

You can follow Abigail on Twitter here



Karen Orlando says:

Fascinating. One wonders if the professor saw any non-facts being dispersed at both the March for Science and the Women’s march?

Karen Orlando says:


Perhaps someone should alert the professor to the FACT that she is attending events promoted by groups like the Sane Energy Project which have been deluding the public, reporters, multiple politicians and more for years now? The group promoted a conspiracy theory on a proposed LNG import project, claims to have 5000 members when it doesn’t and a whole lot more.

Just a tip for you there.

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