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DRI Honors Marine Geophysicist With Nevada Medal

Nevada's Desert Research Institute, a graduate school that explores environmental change, is honoring a scientist who addressed problems in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

It's called The Nevada Medal and it's awarded to people who have shown "outstanding achievement in science and engineering."

This year, the medal is going to Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences.

McNutt is a geophysicist, which means she works on the physics of the earth. McNutt said geophysicists have "cornered the market on disasters." They study earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions -- basically anything having to do with the physics of the earth's layers.

McNutt put that knowledge to work in 2010 following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. 

An oil well ruptured thousands of feet below the surface, causing an explosion on the drilling rig. The event killed 11 people and sent millions of gallons of oil spewing into the gulf.

McNutt was tapped by the Secretary of the Interior at the time to head the team trying to find a way to cap the well, and determine how much oil had leaked.

"We had video monitors everywhere around us that were showing that video feed from that remotely operated vehicle that was trained on the leaking well," she said, "showing this ugly black oil spewing into that beautiful Gulf of Mexico."

This undated frame grab image received from BP and provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee shows details of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. 

She said it was that love of the ocean that kept everyone on the team going during the long hours of work trying to find a solution.

"It was not only stressful but it basically, as an oceanographer, it broke my heart to see that happening," McNutt said.

The work on the Deepwater Horizon disaster was just part of a lifetime of scientific work.

"I don't remember a time where I didn't think of myself as a scientist," she said. "I don't know why, but I always thought of myself as a scientist."

It was that singular focus that pushed her through a time when science was not considered a career path for many women. However, she said there has been a 180-degree flip.

"It has been a change of -- I would say -- night and day," McNutt said. "[We've gone] from a time when women were considered unwelcome -- when professors would feel absolutely unimpeded from discouraging women from taking their classes -- to a point now where there are programs that actually work actively to attract women into their classes."

But despite that change, she said more needs to be done in science careers to make them easier for parents to participate.

"So, [it is] these lifestyle choices that I worry too many women see incompatible with the science career," she said. "I think we have to make careers in science much more family-friendly."

McNutt pointed to the tenure system, which she said coordinates with the time that people, especially women, make choices about starting a family, as a place to change. 

Besides the change in the attitude toward women in science, some scientists have seen a change in attitude towards evidence over opinion. Earlier this year, supporters of evidence held Marches for Science around the country.

McNutt said there were aspects of those marches that she agreed with, especially the idea evidence needs to be respected as well as the freedom of scientists to do their work outside politics.

However, she doesn't want the marches to be one party against another.

"In my experience, science has always been a bipartisan issue and that both Republicans and Democrats have strongly supported science,” she said.

Looking ahead, McNutt would like to bring some of the National Academy of Science reports, which she describes as the Supreme Court of science, to the public's attention.

"The National Academy puts out numerous reports on topics that are of a great interest, but they are not necessarily written in a form that makes them accessible to non-scientists," she said.

She's hoping to change that and provide those translated scientific reports to Wikipedia, so people can get their questions answered with accurate scientific information. 








Marcia McNutt, president, National Academy of Sciences

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)