People of PACE: Jeremy Werdell is the PACE Mission Scientific Conscience

A man wearing glasses and in a light blue checker patterned button up shirt takes up the right side of the image. He is taking a selfie and smiling at the camera. The left side of the picture is aimed over the edge of a balcony inside of a building. Hanging from the ceiling is a model of a spacecraft - PACE. Behind the spacecraft, parts of the floor below, the floor the man is on, and the floor above can be seen.

Jeremy Werdell is the project scientist for the PACE mission as well as a biological oceanographer in the Ocean Ecology Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

What is your favorite ocean- or atmosphere-related book or movie?

“Jaws!” And it’s not close. “Jaws.” Best movie, without question, ever made.

What are you most looking forward to on the night of launch?

The operation of the spacecraft and instruments. I am going to be an absolute nervous wreck the entire time and it won’t be until systems engineering and project management tell me that everything is okay and that the fun is now going to begin that I will finally breathe easy. So, yeah, the transition from “holy crap” to “it’s all working!”

A man stands on the right side of the image seen from the shoulders up. He is wearing a white clean suite that covers over his head and forehead as well as a white mask that covers his nose and mouth. Behind him and to the left in the image is a spacecraft, PACE. Several parts of the spacecraft are covered in a silver-colored foil-like material. The room that the man and the spacecraft are in has very large ceilings which are seen in the background of the selfie.
Jeremy Werdell wearing in a “bunny suit” or cleanroom suit to get up close and personal with the PACE observatory. Credit: Jeremy Werdell/NASA

What are you most looking forward to after the night of launch?

Watching the energy emerge within and across our communities. I’m enjoying taking on the role of making sure the mission is as good as it can be so that it’s something our community can grow into. It is a gift from NASA and the government and community that preceded me to this next generation of scientists that can and will do something amazing.

The Ocean Color Intrument (OCI) on PACE is going to to show us colors of the ocean in a hyperspectral range, which is like using a box of 256 crayons instead of the previous boxes of 8 colored crayons. So, of all the colors in the large crayon box, what is your favorite color and why?

Green, and specifically the wavelength 532 nanometers. That exact green, for two reasons: One, for some weird reason, my family, including my wife, all jibe with green. Two, when I first started a master’s degree at the University of Connecticut, I was learning how to use a spectrophotometer and my advisor, Collin, pointed out a green beam within it and said “532 nanometers, it’s a beautiful color.” That has always stuck with me.

A man wearing a black hoodie takes a selfie. In front of him is a loaf of light tan, freshly baked bread, which takes up the entire length of the image, left to right. The bread is resting on a cooling rack.
Jeremy’s latest loaf of bread, fresh from the oven. Credit: Jeremy Werdell

What’s a fun fact about yourself that not a lot of people might know about you?

I tell almost anybody who will listen that I’d rather be a professional chef than a scientist. In fact, I even have a chef’s knife tattoo now.

I’ll cook anything. I use cooking as therapy – my mental health improves by just standing in the kitchen after work. My wife and I started cooking as a couple when we first had kids because we weren’t leaving the house as often.  But, eventually I kind of just elbowed everybody else out of the kitchen and spent most of my time there.

What is some advice that you would give to aspiring scientists that are looking to be where you are today?

Three things. The one thing that I think got me to where I am within Goddard was the opportunity when I was early in my career to spend a lot of time writing papers and interacting with the science community, including organizing workshops. I had a lot of latitude to get out and about, above and beyond my day-to-day activities.  I found that writing and external engagements to be very good ways to get the community to know me.

A man stands in the image upon a stage. The black stage takes up a majority of the bottom half of the image. The man holds a microphone and is looking to the right in the image, out to the audience. Behind him to the right is a bright red curtain, and to the left is a projected image of a presentation, which is on a slide that is mostly blue and purple in color.
Werdell presenting PACE and NASA Earth Science at Nerd Nite in San Francisco several weeks ago. Credit: Jennifer Werdell

The second thing, which I tell any early career scientist that will listen, is to serve on as many research panels for NASA headquarters as you can. It’s very empowering to sit on the other side of the table and digest the evaluation side of the process. What you learn from doing this really improves the quality of the proposals that you write and, whether anyone likes it or not, being successful in “proposal land” does have its advantages in terms of career advancement.

Third, public speaking. Spend as much time getting out of your comfort zone and talking to anybody who will listen in front of any stage. I can’t stress this enough. Start when you’re in high school. I know most kids hate standing in front of the audience, but you will be so much better at what you do if you can do this. Even if you’re not good at it, don’t fret, just keep at it and find some comfort with it. Eventually the quality will come.

What is one catch-all statement that you would say describing the importance of PACE?

All citizens of the Earth should realize everything is connected: land, ocean, and atmosphere. PACE is NASA’s next great investment in the combined studies of all these aspects of the Earth’s system. With its capabilities, there’s so much scientific growth that will be accomplished, which makes PACE incredibly important to how we understand what we’re doing to our home planet.

A man wearing a blue T-shirt with a spaceship printed on it, takes a selfie, taking up the right side of the image. He is sitting at a table at a restaurant with a plate of food in front of him. In the background of the image is a white boat with one man sitting on it. It is floating in a harbor, the water calm and blue.
Jeremy took a quiet moment with all of his favorite things – food, water, sunshine. Credit: Jeremy Werdell

Header image caption: Enjoying the PACE scale model on display at SRON in the Netherlands. Credit: Jeremy Werdell/NASA

By Erica McNamee, Science Writer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center