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William Patzert
Picture of William Patzert
William Patzert
Research Scientist
"At NASA and JPL, research scientists work with engineers to design and fly science observatories in space to better understand Earth, our solar system and deep space. Is that cool or what?"

Where are you from?
I was born on a balmy, New York City day. The day was clear and unseasonably warm with breezy northwesterly winds between 5 and 30 mph. A good beginning! Actually, I mostly grew up in Gary, Ind. on the shores of Lake Michigan (a smallish ocean) surrounded by great Pleistocene sand dunes. Meteorologically, we had blizzards, sweltering summers and even tornadoes.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
My dad was a sea captain and taught me celestial navigation, shooting the stars and the sun with a sextant. At night he would point out the North Star and the many constellations and tell me about the mythology of each. This was heady stuff and fascinating for a budding geek. For my generation, Sputnik was huge. We became the first space-nut generation. Sputnik and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Explorer 1 gave many of my classmates and me the "space bug."

How did you end up working in the space program?
"Our goal is to better understand the great oceanographic
and atmospheric processes well enough to predict
what our future will be and to use this knowledge
to plan for a sensible future to protect Earth."
William Patzert

My training is in oceanography and meteorology. At the start of my career, the vast oceans and the global atmosphere were poorly sampled. For the first decade of my career, I was a sea-going scientist. I saw much of the world and had great adventures. In the early 1980's, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was flying satellites that were revolutionizing weather forecasting and NASA was planning for a suite of ocean-observing spacecraft. Taking a gamble in 1983, I hung up my sea boots and cast my future and meager fortune with NASA and JPL. That gamble has been wildly successful. The TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1 and Jason-2 ocean satellites have been flying for almost 18 years. These height-measuring observatories have revolutionized oceanography and climate research. To put it simply, I took a big risk and have had a fantastic career. For me, TOPEX/Poseidon has been my career maker.

Who inspired you?
Many men and women have inspired me. My parents were supportive and stimulating. They loved ideas, education and the natural world. Many of my mentors and professors were superb. And, reading Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us" opened new worlds to me. I also had the good fortune to spend a week with the late Arthur C. Clark at his home in Sri Lanka. Wow, what a great guy! He encouraged me to be fearless and let my imagination soar. And every day my colleagues, fellow surfers, friends, and good books keep me pumped up. I also enjoy the Los Angeles or New York Times; they are more interesting to me than Twitter.

What is a Research Scientist?
At NASA and JPL, research scientists work with engineers to design and fly science observatories in space to better understand Earth, our solar system and deep space. Is that cool or what? Lately, our group has been studying the global rise of the sea level, the great natural climate cycles like El Nino and La Nina, the shrinking of the polar ice caps, and many other ocean processes that impact world civilization. Our goal is to better understand the great oceanographic and atmospheric processes well enough to predict what our future will be and to use this knowledge to plan for a sensible future to protect Earth.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
On a beautiful evening, 10 August 1982, the TOPEX/Poseidon oceanographic satellite was launched from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. NASA and CNES (the French Space Agency) had labored for a decade to design, fund and build this beautiful bird. When the sun was setting, the rockets fired, and we were all on pins and needles. Wow, there was a lot of tension and excitement that evening. High anxiety, elation, and fantastic celebration lasted until daylight. I was privileged to play a small role and reap a great career. For me, it was even better than surfing and dropping into my first monster wave and surviving. If you ask me, 18 years later I can say, without reservation, that TOPEX/Poseidon has been the most successful ocean experiment of all time!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Of course, hard work, a good education and focus are important. But real success requires passion. You have to love what you do. Choose your career with your heart, not your head. And make it fun!

What do you do for fun?
When I was 30, fun consisted of surfing, checking out the ladies at the beach and blasting my eardrums with the Beach Boys. And, of course, reading good books. I'm a mystery junkie. Mysteries are addictive! Good historical novels are a treat too. Now, even though I am no longer 30, I still have fun. I collect art of all types... my tastes are eclectic. I have Mexican folk art, Japanese prints, Persian rugs and my prize collection, Hawaiian surf shirts. For exercise, I do some biking, romantic walks on the beach, and have good intentions of doing more. A recent knee replacement slowed me down, but that's no excuse. In L.A., you can turn almost anything into fun. I love the cultural mix of people, the proximity to the mountains and to the sea and the great food.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Floss every day, use sunscreen, don't overuse your knees, and don't tweet! There is no Nobel Prize for tweeting. Of course I'm probably wrong about all this. But I don't think so! They'll find out in 30 or so years from now that I was right. They'll be saying, 'Remember the advice that old dude gave us back in the day? Why didn't we listen?'


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Last Updated: 3 January 2013


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