A.R. Ravishankara

Born: November 16, 1949 | Shimoga, IN

A.R. Ravishankara grew up in Mysore and Bangalore, India, the son of a farmer who died when Ravishankara was ten years old. Ravishankara graduated high school at fourteen and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Mysore. He entered the PhD program at the University of Florida, where he worked on hydrofluorocarbon under Robert Hanrahan. After stints at the University of Maryland and Georgia Tech, Ravishankara moved to the Aeronomy Lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, where he later became head of the Chemical Science Division. Much of Ravishankara's current work involves explaining his research to government policy makers and members of the Montreal Protocol.  

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0833
No. of pages: 81
Minutes: 200

Interview Sessions

Hilary Domush and Sarah L. Hunter-Lascoskie
7 and 9 May 2013
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colorado

Abstract of Interview

A.R. Ravishankara was born in Shimoga, India, and grew up mostly in Mysore and Bangalore, India. His father was a farmer who died when A.R. was ten years old. Ravishankara attended a private school and graduated from high school when he was fourteen. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in physics and chemistry and a master’s degree in physical chemistry from the University of Mysore.

Ravishankara entered the PhD program at the University of Florida, working with Robert Hanrahan; his thesis dealt with hydrofluorcarbon (HFC). He and his wife then moved to the University of Maryland, where he worked on chlorine nitrate with Douglas Davis. From Maryland he accepted a position at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and began research into ozone layer depletion.

From warm Georgia Ravishankara moved to Boulder, Colorado, recruited by Carleton Howard and Daniel Albritton, the head of the Aeronomy Lab at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That same year Ravishankara’s son was born, and the ozone hole was discovered. He went to Antarctica to investigate the ozone hole. While on the field study, they could not talk about the discovery because the Montreal Protocol (MP) was being negotiated. Ravishankara and his wife also adopted a daughter during this period. He and Susan Solomon published twelve papers together. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) seemed to be good substitutes for CFCs; bringing him back to his PhD thesis. Moving from kinetics to photochemistry and heterochemistry, Ravishankara became senior scientist. He then began working with cavity ring-down spectroscopy on nitrate (NO3) and dinitrogen pentoxide (N2O5) and nighttime chemistry. He also worked on aerosols. Ravishankara and his wife also adopted a daughter during this period.

When Albritton left to organize the Earth System Research Laboratory, Ravishankara became first the acting head, then the head, of the Chemical Sciences Division. Much of his work entails explaining his research to government policy makers and members of the Montreal Protocol. As members have differing problems and agendas; science is a small part of the meetings, so Ravishankara attends MP meetings only if asked to present. Nitrous oxide is difficult to work with, as it is produced by growing food, so the attempt now is to limit the increase of agricultural use of nitrous oxide.

Ravishankara explains how to discuss climate issues with people outside his field. He recognizes that individuals have a tiny, indirect, and often invisible effect on climate, making them resistant to changing their own behavior. He says that science is only one input for decision-making.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1968 University of Mysore BSc Physics and Chemistry
1970 University of Mysore MSc Physical Chemistry
1975 University of Florida PhD Physical Chemistry

Professional Experience

University of Maryland, College Park

1976
Research Associate

Georgia Institute of Technology

1976 to 1980
Research Scientist II
1980 to 1983
Senior Research Scientist
1983 to 1985
Principal Research Scientist
1979 to 1985
Head of Molecular Sciences Branch, Research Institute

University of Colorado, Boulder

1989 to 2014
Professor of Chemistry, Adjunct

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

1984 to 1992
Research Chemist
1992 to 1997
Supervisor Research Chemist
1993 to 2007
Chief, Atmospheric Chemical Kinetics Program
1997 to 2007
Senior Scientist (ST)
2006 to 2007
Acting Director, Chemical Sciences Division, Earth System Research Laboratory
2007 to 2014
Director, Chemical Sciences Division, Earth System Research Laboratory
2007 to 2014
Senior Executive Service (SES)

Colorado State University

2014 to 2016
Professor, Departments of Chemistry and Atmospheric Science

Honors

Year(s) Award
1995

US Department of Commerce, Silver Medal

1996

US Environmental Protection Agency, Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award

1997

Fellow, American Geophysical Union

1998

Polanyi Medal of the Royal Society of Britain (Gas Kinetics Division)

1999

Robertson Memorial Lecturer, U.S. National Academy of Sciences

2000

Member, US National Academy of Sciences

2001

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

2003

Crawford Lecture, University of Minnesota

2003

Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) Centenary Lecturer

2004

US Presidential Rank Meritorious Award for a senior professional

2005

American Chemical Society’s Award for Creative Advances in Environmental Sciences

2005

Chancellor Lecturer, Louisiana State University

2005

Fellow, Royal Society of Chemistry (United Kingdom)

2007

US Department of Commerce, Bronze Medal

2008

US Department of Commerce, Bronze Medal

2008

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator’s Award

2008

Fellow, International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry

2008

Centenary Lecturer, Indian Institute of Science, India

2009

Welch Foundation Lecturer, Texas

2009

Morino Foundation Fellow, Japan

2010

Hinshelwood Lecturer, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

2012

US Department of Commerce, Bronze Medal

2013

Harold Schiff Lecture, York University, York, Canada

2013

Randall Lecture, University of Texas at Arlington, Texas

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family. High school. College. Cricket.

Graduate School and Postdoctoral Work
22

University of Florida. Teaching assistant; research assistant; Robert Hanrahan. Lab work. Thesis on hydrofluorocarbon; met wife. University of Maryland; Douglas Davis; Robert Watson. Chlorine nitrate. Technology. Family hobbies. Flooding lab.

First Job
32

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). Wife in medical school at Emory University. Kinetics. Ozone depletion. Intuition vs. instrumentation. Lab management. German sabbatical; Jürgen Troe.

Life in a Cold Climate
38

Aeronomy Laboratory of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Son born, ozone hole discovered. Susan Solomon; stratosphere research; Antarctica. Montreal Protocol (MP) negotiations. Chair of ozone assessment for MP. Daniel Albritton.

Settling In
43

Daughter. Lab management, research, publications. Wetted-wall flowing tube. From troposphere to stratosphere. Rates of ozone depletion. Promotions at NOAA. Cavity ring-down spectroscopy technique. Aerosols and photoacoustic microscopy.

The Next Step
58

Earth System Research Laboratory. Ravishankara and Chemical Sciences Division (formerly Aeronomy Lab). Working with politicians. Federal funding. Federal funding. Pasteur’s quadrant. Family life.

More about Ozone
70

Most-cited paper. Intersection of policy and science. Dissemination of science to public. Scientific versus individual responsibility. Creative ways to discuss science; art.

Index
79

About the Interviewer

Hilary Domush

Hilary Domush was a Program Associate in the Center for Oral History at CHF from 2007–2015. Previously, she earned a BS in chemistry from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in 2003.  She then completed an MS in chemistry and an MA in history of science both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her graduate work in the history of science focused on early nineteenth-century chemistry in the city of Edinburgh, while her work in the chemistry was in a total synthesis laboratory.  At CHF, she worked on projects such as the Pew Biomedical Scholars, Women in Chemistry, Atmospheric Science, and Catalysis.

Sarah L. Hunter-Lascoskie

Sarah L. Hunter-Lascoskie earned a BA in history at the University of Pennsylvania and an MA in public history at Temple University. Her research has focused on the ways in which historical narratives are created, shaped, and presented to diverse groups. Before Sarah joined CHF, she was the Peregrine Arts Samuel S. Fels research intern and Hidden City project coordinator. Sarah worked both in the Center for Oral History and the Institute for Research at CHF and led projects that connected oral history and public history, producing a number of online exhibits that used oral histories, archival collections, and other materials. She also contributed to CHF’s Periodic Tabloid and Distillations.