Uma Shankar

Uma Shankar is a research associate in the Center for Environmental Modeling for Policy Development within the UNC Institute for the Environment. Her research focuses on air quality and its climate impacts.

Uma Shankar poses in front of a lake with a fountain on campusPhoto by Alyssa LaFaro
July 6th, 2016

When you were a little girl, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Since the fourth grade, my answer to this question was “scientist.” The goal got a little more refined in the seventh grade, when I read a great sci-fi novella called “Marooned on Vespa” by Isaac Asimov that I found in the school library (Mother Superior was good about stocking it with fun reads). So, for a while, I thought I wanted to be an astronaut.

Share the pivotal “moment” in your life that helped you choose research as a career path.

In high school, I had a fantastic teacher named Indrani Subhash, who taught chemistry and physics with a passion. She got a group of us motivated enough to start a science club, which was not easy to do given the rigors — and endless exams — of our Catholic school. It turned out that science and math were my better subjects, so it made sense to become a scientist.

Describe your research in five words.

“Climate change + humans = wildfires + pollution.”

What’s an interesting thing that happened while you were doing research?

My work on climate change, wildfires, and their air-quality impacts began 10 years ago. During a progress review, I got a question on arson wildfires (important in the South) from someone I knew years ago from a totally different academic area than mine. Turns out, he is in forest management with the U.S. Forest Service. We ended up collaborating, and his program later became a sponsor of my research. Science careers advance through serendipity more often than one might think.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming female researchers in your field?

Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you are in the minority — the times are a’changin’! Find a good mentor who is sincerely interested in your curiosity and can help you discover your own skills as a scientist. Don’t be afraid to sound naive. Ignorance is not a crime, but silence when you should be asking questions is.

UNC Research is proud of every scientist on this campus, but we are especially excited to promote our female researchers in 2016. Each week this year, we will publish a short Q&A feature on one of them — whether she is an undergrad, PhD candidate, or full professor. Please click here to make a recommendation.

Check out our 2016 Women in Science Wednesday Infographic!