Climatologist, Staples grad named MacArthur Fellow

WESTPORT — Andrea Dutton likens the work she does in her field of study to that of a detective.

“I study past climate and sea-level change on Earth,” Dutton said. “The main focus of my research is to establish the behavior of sea level and polar ice-sheets, like the ones in Greenland and Antarctica, during past warm periods.”

As a paleoclimatologist, she helps inform people about future sea-level rise and what could happen as the world warms. Through collecting fossil corals that lived near the sea surface, she is able to piece together an image of past sea levels and project what the future of the planet may look like.

“Climate changes naturally and sea level changes naturally, but when we look at what happens today this is very clearly not part of a natural cycle,” Dutton said.

For these efforts, Dutton was among 26 people announced as 2019 MacArthur Fellows and will receive $625,000 toward her work. The fellowship is awarded to individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, according to the foundation’s site.

“It’s a great feeling,” she said of the honor. “It means people value my contributions and I’m having an impact. It’s also a great opportunity for me to step back and think how I can build on this and do even more.”

Dutton is also a visiting associate professor in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The 1991 Staples High School graduate recalled how she first fell in love with science while attending Amherst College.

“It was never my plan to do it. I accidentally took an intro to geology course and fell in love with it,” Dutton said.

Her plan originally was to become a doctor; however, upon taking the geology course she found herself akin to a detective of planet Earth.

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“It was like solving a puzzle to figure out what had happened in the past,” she said. “To do that I had to use all my knowledge of chemistry, physics and biology.”

Dutton said she became enraptured in the appeal of using multiple disciplines to solve Earth’s story, adding constantly learning in the field is intellectually stimulating.

“Sometimes we come up with a story of what happened and then later on we find another clue,” Dutton said. “Then we have to go back and revisit it and revise our story because we have more information. That part of it is fun too.”

Another key part of her work is its societal relevance. Dutton said she works in communities to help translate what she’s learned as a scientist about a climate change, how it impacts people’s lives, and what everyone can do.

“Whether it’s children, adults, or senior citizens we are all affected by climate change,” she said.

Building connections is important in relaying this information, Dutton said. Whether this is a connection through enjoying a past-time or connecting about children, Dutton said an easier approach is to explain how climate change affects these connections.

“Once you realize you share the same values you’re more willing to have more trust in a person,” she said. “That’s a more effective approach versus coming in and telling people what you think.”

Moving forward, one of Dutton’s focuses will be understanding how fast polar ice sheets retreat under warm conditions. While people know sea levels rise, they often question how quickly it occurs, she said.

“That is one of the main focuses of my research right now. We want to get a better handle on the timing of this ice sheet retreat so we can help coastal planners as we move into the future,” Dutton said.