The University of Texas’ star climatologist was planning a career in medical research until she met the white rats.
“The cutest little white rats,” she says with a smile, remembering the creatures she encountered on the first day of vertebrate physiology lab in her premed senior year at UT. She read the instructions on how to anesthetize the rats, cut them open live, remove some organs and eventually kill them.
“I just said ‘No,’ and I walked out,” Camille Parmesan says. She headed straight for the office of professor Michael Singer, who had taught an animal behavior class she’d enjoyed that included a two-week butterfly research trip to California. She told Singer she was switching her major to zoology, and she wanted to write a thesis on butterflies.
That’s how Parmesan wound up one recent day standing on a chair, trying to nail the Distinguished Texas Scientist Award onto the institutional-green wall of her cluttered office overlooking the UT Tower. After dropping the nail and retrieving it from behind her bookcase, she managed to mount her most recent plaque next to her U.S. Fish and Wildlife certification of appreciation and the National Wildlife Federal’s 2006 Conservation Achievement Award. Her 2007 Nobel is on another wall.
Oh, her Nobel? She shrugs. It was a team Nobel Peace Prize, she says, won with other scientists from throughout the world.
“There were about 1,200 of us,” says Parmesan, who was lead author of the Nobel winning climate change impact research performed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel, established in 1988 by the United Nation’s World Meteorological Organization, each year produces a report — two phone book-size tomes — on the far-reaching impacts of climate change.
“It was so much work, and it’s all volunteer,” says Parmesan, 51. She had to slide that work into her schedule as professor of integrative biology at UT; it wasn’t part of her university job description. But finding time for these sorts of things is just part of life when you’re an eminent scientist whose papers have been cited by other scientists more than 14,000 times.
Science was part of her life as far back as Parmesan can remember.
“My mother got me into it,” she says. Parmesan grew up in Houston. Her mother was a geology and botany student and an amateur conservationist, Parmesan says, and “ever since I literally could walk, she was taking me on hikes. She’d bring along field guides.” They explored the Big Thicket together.
“When I was 10 years old, there was a sixth-grade science fair, and I built the Big Thicket ecosystem,” she says. “And I won.”
Parmesan’s interest in the outdoors and the creatures that live there was reignited on that butterfly-study trip she took in college with Singer’s class.
And, about Singer: “He’s my husband,” she says as she sips a cup of tea, “but that didn’t happen until later, when I was a graduate student.” She had brewed the tea for herself in her office, which also contains a fridge and toaster oven. The woman does a lot of living inside these walls, and it’s not surprising to learn that her marriage is interwoven with science and UT.
Parmesan has studied many species of butterflies, she says, “but the one that has given me the most bang for the buck is Edith’s checkerspot. It’s just a brilliant species to ask questions of because it is very, very sensitive to climate.”
She’d been studying this butterfly for 10 years when, as a postdoctoral student at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, Calif., she won a NASA grant that resulted in her first single-author paper in 1996 on the effects of climate change on butterflies.
Her research involved combing the West Coast — all of it, from Mexico to Canada — visiting established butterfly colony sites and discovering how the populations had changed. She concluded that the butterflies were moving because southern climates were getting too hot for them.
“What I was able to show was that the butterfly is moving north,” she says. “It was one of only three papers in the world on climate change. It really jolted scientists.”
In the past four years, Parmesan has been working more with numbers than with butterflies, analyzing data on how various species are adapting to climate change. Mexican green jays, for example, are now residents of Texas, she says, and they’re farther north in greater numbers. In the U.S. and Europe, she says, swallows are breeding an average of two weeks earlier than in the past.
“I really do want to get back into the field now working with my butterflies,” she says. In that realm, she’s excited about a second appointment she took on in the past year as a research scientist at the Marine Institute in Plymouth in England.
“In fact, my husband is at Plymouth right now, growing caterpillars for a joint project,” she says. She’s excited about her Plymouth appointment because “they also really appreciate the work that I’ve done in outreach and conservation.” The University of Texas, she says, hasn’t encouraged her involvement in applied work.
Aside from that, “the university at all levels has been very supportive of my work,” she says. “It’s not being at the university that’s been difficult. It’s being in Texas, with our governor saying climate change is against state policy. I do have a hard time with that.”
In Europe, everybody accepts that climate change is real, she says, and the discussion can begin with its effects and what to do about it. In the U.S., she has to spend a lot of time presenting data proving that climates are changing.
“What’s difficult for me is when people are convinced they know what’s happening, and they are totally wrong,” she says. “What I think is so harmful about what some politicians are doing is that people do look up to them. There’s a group of politicians who are virulently anti-science. I don’t know why the U.S. is that way, and it’s only in the U.S. — and a lot of Islamic nations.” That, she says, is why England is a breath of fresh air.
“I do love Austin, and I am a native Texan,” she says. “But you get tired of fighting.”