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Humans of NCEI: Douglas Rao

Humans of NCEI
Courtesy of NOAA NCEI

Here at NCEI, we aren’t just data—we are people. In our Humans of NCEI series, meet the awesome minds that manage one of the largest archives of atmospheric, coastal, geophysical, and oceanic research in the world. Get to know Yuhan “Douglas” Rao, a Postdoctoral Research Scholar who specializes in satellite remote sensing and statistical modeling for climate and environmental applications.

Courtesy of Douglas Rao

What is your job title?

Postdoctoral Research Scholar

What is your specific area of expertise?

I specialize in satellite remote sensing and statistical modeling for climate and environmental applications.

What was your first job? How did it prepare you for your current position?

Working at NCEI is my first full-time job after 20 years in school. I was a research assistant during my master’s and doctoral training where I worked on developing algorithms using satellite data to monitor global land cover, vegetation phenology, and surface air temperature change. Before that, I interned at environmental conservation organizations such as the Jane Goodall Institute. My passion for nature and my graduate school research experiences led me to switch my career path from statistician-by-training to a geoscientist focusing on machine learning and satellite data for climate research.

How did you end up at NCEI?

During my Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland, I was a research assistant for the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellite. Towards the end of my graduate school time, I saw the job opportunity to work for the new phase of the Cooperative Institute for Satellite and Earth System Studies (CISESS) where I would support climate data records and machine learning applications. The job description appeared to be a natural extension of my dissertation research, so I applied and now I have been with CISESS and NCEI for more than two years. In addition, I work with a talented and passionate team to support the establishment of the new NOAA Center for Artificial Intelligence.

What does a usual workday look like for you?

A usual workday for me starts with a cup of coffee (no sugar and cream) and a triage of emails in my inbox with NPR's Morning Edition in the background. Most of my time during the day is spent on coding, data analysis, and visualization, which is the most fun part of the job. There will be some dispersed meetings during the day talking with colleagues across NCEI and other collaborators about ongoing projects. Being so close to the mountains, my workday usually ends with an outdoor excursion along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

What question are you asked most often when someone finds out what you do? How do you respond?

When I tell people about my job of working with satellite data for weather and climate, people always ask me if I do weather forecasts. My response is that I don’t forecast weather but my work produces data that is used to improve weather forecast and climate prediction through time and that I can look back through time to view how hot/cold a place is from space.

What sort of training and education would one need for your job?

Working at the intersection of satellite observations and statistical modeling, I think the essential training should include fundamentals of satellite remote sensing, statistics, and scientific programming. Additional training in data visualization can be very helpful as well. 

What inspired you to pursue a career in your field?

I was always very curious about nature as a kid. During my college time, I was actively involved in student environmental conservation groups and local non-profit organizations. I often spent most of my summer breaks in nature reserves for environmental conservation and education activities. My passion for environmental conservation led me to explore how I can use my college-educated skills to support environmental conservation. The curiosity-driven exploration turned into my undergraduate and then graduate school research projects.  

What projects are you working on now? Are there any upcoming projects that you are excited about?

I am currently working on developing a global blended near-surface air temperature by combining long-term satellite data and in situ temperature measurements at NCEI using machine learning technology. This project will provide more than 40 years of consistent near-surface air temperature for both land and ocean for climate monitoring. Another very exciting initiative is supporting the development of the newly established NOAA Center for AI by developing AI training materials for the NOAA workforce and collaborating with other federal and international partners to define what is "AI-ready" environmental data.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

My favorite aspect of the job is the flexibility to work with a group of very talented colleagues within and beyond NCEI who want to make environmental data and innovative technologies matter for the public good!

What challenges have you had to deal with in your career?

Graduate school was a very stressful time, especially when I was exploring different career options for the future. The uncertainty is not a good feeling at all. But I am fortunate to have a very supportive group of friends and colleagues in the program where we always helped each other out when needed. My stress-cooking habit also may have helped!

Who are you outside of your career?

I am passionate about three things - food, birds, and travel. I love exploring different places, types of food and always want to find the hidden local diners when I am traveling. I also love cooking food at home and hosting friends over homemade food. During normal time, I would host friends at my place regularly where we play some board games (a tradition from graduate school). I love birding, a hobby I picked up in 2007. My favorite bird is the snowy owl (more specifically, Hedwig in Harry Potter).

Is there anything else you would like people to know about you?

I enjoy volunteering to give back to the local community and doing nature photography. I am currently volunteering for the Blue Ridge Audubon Chapter and the MANNA Food Bank in Asheville. I am also a certified bird-bander and take scientific measurements to help scientists study migratory birds.

Pets?

No pets at this moment, but I am a proud pandemic senior dog foster. My latest foster dog is a 9-year-old pittie named Roxy who enjoys hiking, food, snoring while I am on a conference call, and squeezing into the small space between my back and the couch. 

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