UArizona paleoclimatologist to receive NSF's highest early-career honor
On May 5, Jessica Tierney will be the first climatologist to win the Alan T. Waterman Award since Congress established it in 1975. She is also the first from the University of Arizona to ever receive the honor.

National Science Foundation and University Communications
April 20, 2022

Jess Tierney.jpg

Jessica Tierney
Jessica Tierney

Jessica Tierney, a University of Arizona geoscientist who studies ancient climates, is one of three scientists to be named a 2022 recipient of the National Science Foundation's Alan T. Waterman Award. The award, which comes with $1 million over five years, is the nation's highest honor for early-career scientists and engineers, and recognizes outstanding individual achievements in NSF-supported research.

Tierney, an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science, is the first climatologist to win the award since Congress established it in 1975. She is also the first from UArizona to ever receive the honor.

This is the first year the NSF has chosen to honor three researchers. The other recipients are Lara Thompson, a biomedical engineer at the University of the District of Columbia, and Daniel Larremore, a computer scientist from the University of Colorado Boulder.

"It is a great pleasure to honor these three outstanding scientists with the Waterman Award," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. "They have clearly demonstrated a superb record of scientific achievements by using creative and innovative approaches that have further strengthened basic research in their respective fields. We are grateful to all of our honorees for the vital role they play in advancing the scientific enterprise. I am thrilled to congratulate each of them and look forward to their tremendous accomplishments in the future."

According to the NSF's Higher Education Research and Development Survey, UArizona's research and development expenditures are ranked in the top 4% of all U.S. universities. UArizona is ranked No. 20 among public institutions and No. 35 overall, with $761 million in total research activity.

Looking back to plan ahead

As a high school student, Tierney knew she was interested in majoring in science but didn't know which field until she started college. She enrolled in an introductory geology course that sparked her interest in Earth science. She also became interested in studying the history of Earth and, more specifically, paleoclimatology, which looks deeply into ancient climates to answer questions about what Earth's past climate was like and why.

Tierney is recognized for her outstanding advances in the reconstruction of past climate change and furthering the understanding of future climate change.

"Receiving this award signals that one of the nation's top research funders recognizes the urgency of understanding the Earth system as humans drive climate change," Tierney said. "It makes me feel like my research is important and really making a difference."

Her research focuses on understanding ancient climate change, including quantifying changes in global temperature, ocean temperature and the water cycle. The goal is to improve our understanding of what the future holds under climate change. She specializes in generating organic geochemical records of paleoclimate, derived from fossil molecules known as biomarkers that are preserved in sediments and rocks.

"Studying the past is important because it can narrow our projections for what climate will look like at the end of the century, and what sort of impacts humans will face," Tierney said.

Using novel modeling techniques combined with paleoclimate data assimilation, she has generated groundbreaking maps of past climate conditions and the system dynamics that produced the conditions. Her research has redefined the understanding of global temperature changes in the geologic past and developed a new quantitative understanding of temperature and climate sensitivity to past levels of carbon dioxide.

"Dr. Tierney has quickly made a name for herself in the climate sciences, and we couldn't be more proud that she has won this prestigious award," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "Not only is she the first person from this university to receive this honor, but also the first person in the climate sciences. This is a tremendous honor, and we're lucky to have her incredibly valuable expertise at our university."    

The NSF has been investing in climate change research for decades, helping scientists to collect long-term, continuous data and observations. Tierney's research has been made possible through NSF's investments in the dynamics and complexity of Earth processes to piece together the entire puzzle of climate change and create new, sustainable climate change solutions. 

"It is an absolutely incredible honor to receive the Waterman Award," Tierney said. "I am so humbled to share this recognition with leading researchers across all fields of science. I'm really grateful to NSF for the support, and I hope that my research will help society prepare for, and ultimately mitigate, human-caused climate change."

Tierney earned a bachelor's, master's and a doctorate in geology from Brown University. She has been at the University of Arizona since 2015. Tierney is a Packard Foundation Fellow, an American Geophysical Union Fellow and a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment report. 

In addition to a medal, Alan T. Waterman Award recipients each receive $1 million over five years for research in their chosen field of science.

"The funding from this award will provide key support for my students, postdocs and my lab manager, bolstering our ability to explore new research avenues," Tierney said. "In particular, this award will allow us to explore high-risk, high-reward ideas that have the potential to transform our understanding of past and future climate change."

The Waterman Award will be presented to all recipients at a ceremony during the National Science Board meeting in Washington, D.C., on May 5. The award, established by Congress in 1975, is named for Alan T. Waterman, NSF's first director.


Resources for the media

Media contact(s)

Mikayla Mace Kelley

Science Writer, University Communications

Researcher contact(s)

Jessica Tierney

Department of Geosciences