Professor Jagadish Shukla’s Gift is the Latest Step in A Remarkable Life Journey

Prof. Shukla with Climate Dynamics department colleagues in 2018. Mason was the first university in the U.S. to award a PhD in Climate Dynamics. Front row (l to r): N. Burls, K. Pegion, J. Shukla, P. Schopf, L. Chiu, C. Stan, B. Klinger. Back row: D. Straus, P. Dirmeyer, B. Huang, J. Kinter, T. DelSole, E. Schneider, B. Doty (not pictured: Z. Boybeyi and D. Tong). (Photo by Tom Wakefield)

The remarkable journey that has brought Jagadish Shukla from his childhood in a rural village in India to world prominence at George Mason University continues to find new paths for impact.

Shukla, a professor of climate dynamics at Mason since 1994, has made his mark in both the United States and India not only as a scholar and researcher, but as an institution-builder, benefactor of education and social justice, and philanthropist.

As a founder of the university’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences (AOES), Shukla has gained international recognition for Mason in that field, while mentoring and training dozens of future scientists. He has influenced countless students through the popular Mason Core course on global warming, Climate 101, that he regularly co-teaches to undergraduates with former AOES chair, Professor Jim Kinter.

Epitomizing his dedication to Mason and his chosen field, Shukla and his wife recently made a generous pledge to provide lasting support for doctoral fellowships in the College of Science. The Jagadish and Anastasia Shukla AOES Fellowship Endowment will support graduate students pursuing the PhD in climate dynamics. Among the largest philanthropic commitments ever made by a Mason faculty member, it only adds to Shukla’s legacy at Mason.

But this exceptional philanthropic commitment is just the latest chapter in Shukla’s compelling life story.

Jagadish Shukla, Professor of Climate Dynamics speaking at the Building Sustainability and Resilience Symposium. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University

Young Jagadish, one of six children, grew up in the district of Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, in a village without electricity, roads, or a primary school. His early education was “under a banyan tree,” and later at a school started by his father, the only person in the village who could read.

To pursue his education, Shukla walked barefoot daily to the middle school, located three miles away in another village. The closest high schools did not offer science education, “but my father was determined that I study science,” Shukla recalls. “He bought me five grades of science books to learn in one summer. ‘You’re not going to graze cows this summer, you’re going to learn science, there will be a test.’” The young student excelled, but sadly, his father died in an accident just as Shukla graduated from college.

Enrolling at Banaras Hindu University, Shukla earned a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s in geophysics in 1964. That led to his first professional position, doing oil prospecting.

“Then I received a letter offering me an interview for a job at the Institute of Tropical Meteorology,” he says. “I said no, I’m not going, because I didn’t know anything about meteorology. I know oil prospecting. But my roommate said you should go, you’ll get a chance to see Delhi.”

He was offered the job. “It was a government job, and my mother said you absolutely must take it. I had no choice. So I went to a library, got a glossary, and started learning meteorology. I managed to do some weather predictions by using their new computer. Remember, this was 1967. They said, oh my gosh, this guy from the village has come and can actually use computers!”

Soon Shukla was en route to the U.S. and Japan as part of a prestigious United Nations fellowship. He was also nominated by India to attend an international meteorology conference in Tokyo, where he was to present a paper.

“I had written a paper criticizing some results of a scientist named [Dr. Jule] Charney. At the time I didn’t know who he was, because remember I really had no meteorology background. At the end of presenting the paper, the session chairman   asked ‘Are there any questions?’ There was stunned silence in the room. Then this fellow raises his hand, and says yes, I have four questions. It was Charney. It turns out he was the most famous meteorologist in the world. I was probably the only person at the conference who didn’t know who he was.”

That may seem an inauspicious first step, but in fact it was the beginning of a formative relationship for Shukla. “Charney came to talk to me at the coffee break. I got to know him, and eventually he became my friend and mentor. After meeting Charney, I applied for admission to MIT, where he taught. MIT offered me a stipend of $295 per month, which was enough for me to live in Cambridge and save $50 each month to send to my mother. So I went, and I did my Sc.D. there under Charney.”

After time spent researching at MIT and Princeton University, Shukla was named head of the climate modeling group at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. There he pioneered an influential insight, an exception to the famed “butterfly effect,” which holds that long-term weather conditions are highly unpredictable because small variations in initial atmospheric conditions can cause large differences in the outcome.

“Based on my experience with the Indian monsoons, which bring large-scale persistent droughts and floods, I was not comfortable with the prevailing notion [of the butterfly effect] that nothing is predictable beyond two weeks. I thought, nature cannot be so cruel to society and especially to the farmers. That’s just my optimistic view of life.”

“I came up with a hypothesis: in one sentence you could call it ‘predictability in the midst of chaos.’ My hypothesis was that although the atmosphere is a chaotic system, certain components of atmospheric variability could be predictable beyond two weeks. One of them is seasonal mean temperature and rainfall. We demonstrated, using climate models, that the slowly varying boundary conditions of ocean temperature and land surface properties can produce strong and predictable impacts on atmospheric circulation and rainfall, especially in the tropical regions.

“This notion provided a scientific basis for routine dynamical seasonal prediction of climate for the benefit of society. It became such a powerful idea that several federal agencies were willing to support this line of research.”

In 1984 Shukla and his colleagues founded the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies (COLA) at the University of Maryland to pursue research on predictability beyond weather. When COLA became an independent center in 1994, Shukla and his colleagues began to work with Mason students and researchers. With support from then-provost Peter Stearns and others, Shukla established a new department (AOES), and a new PhD program in climate dynamics at Mason, which has so far produced more than 50 PhDs. In 2014, COLA moved to the Fairfax Campus and officially became a center of the College of Science.

Along the way, Shukla’s reputation grew. The author or coauthor of more than 250 scientific papers, he received the International Meteorological Organization Prize, the highest honor in the field, and was among the lead authors of the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Gore.

His prominence in climate change science, and his 2015 letter to President Obama on the role of the fossil fuel industry in spreading misinformation about climate change, has also brought Shukla his share of controversy, including attacks from the fossil fuel industry, an abortive investigation by a congressional committee, and once being named on Fox News as “the third most-dangerous man in America.”

Meanwhile, Shukla’s gentle demeanor, and desire to help others, belie those characterizations. He modernized India’s weather enterprise by establishing a supercomputer center for weather prediction and monsoon forecasting in New Delhi. He helped create a research and training program in Trieste, Italy, where he and other volunteers from COLA train scientists from developing countries each year.

For the past 40 years, he has traveled back to India each year to work with Indian weather and climate organizations and visit his home village of Mirdha, where he and his wife fund education and women’s empowerment programs. In 1999, he founded a college there, dedicated to the Gandhian principles of honesty and integrity.

“My mother said to me, this is great that you travel the world, but what have you done for the village?,” Shukla says. “So my wife and I said, let’s start a college in the village, because most of the girls were unable to travel to the city to get an education. We named it Gandhi College. We have about 800 students. Seventy to eighty percent are women.”

The same entrepreneurial spirit that has characterized his career is also what makes him so comfortable at Mason, Shukla says, crediting his many outstanding colleagues for much of what the department has accomplished. That spirit makes his journey not just a classic American success story—but a quintessentially Mason one as well.

—Rob Riordan / August 25, 2021

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