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Satellite Specialist Yuhan Douglas Rao Delivers Climate Communication Where It Counts

Man with glasses and Dark Blue button up top
Douglas Rao; Photo Credit Douglas Rao

Yuhan Douglas Rao faced a pivotal moment as a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park. His passion to study the changing climate had merged well with his field of work in satellite data analysis, but he was kept up at night with one question - would his research touch any lives beyond the people who read his academic papers?

His career-defining answer came when he realized he was the one who could make his discoveries intriguing and relatable to others, far beyond just other scientists. It was crucial that he connect with the planners, the politicians and the everyday people who would be making decisions about how to cope with a changing planet.

“We have the duty to really work with the community to address those climate issues that really concern them, because not every area is facing the same risk or the same impact,” he says.

He and his colleagues could also combine indigenous understanding of climate patterns with their own work, “stitching together traditional ecological knowledge as well as the science done by the more quantitative approach.”

With that new mindset, Rao added courses that helped address both predicaments. He took some different types of classes at the University of Maryland during his final semester, including data visualization classes.

He even took an improvisation course on science communication so he could develop the skills to connect with all kinds of audiences - whether they were made up of farmers or second graders.

“One exercise that I remember the most from improv is ‘mirroring,’ which constantly reminds me that we shouldn't be coming in with the assumption of what we think people know when engaging with them. Instead, we should be actively listening to people that we are talking with and adapt our own communication to better fit the situation,” Rao says.

Rao is now a research scholar at the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies at North Carolina State University in Asheville. He specializes in satellite remote sensing and statistical modeling for climate and environmental applications.

And, thanks to a AAAS program, the Local Science Engagement Network (LSEN), Rao is now expanding his reach on the civic engagement side of his work. In July, he was named one of six LSEN  Liaisons who would help build local networks of scientists and engineers who are committed to civic engagement, offering valuable training and resources. Their mission, across North Carolina, Maine, Utah, West Virginia and Puerto Rico, is to mobilize regional scientists and engineers. All of them will then reach out into their communities to elevate and build trust in science, and to help solve climate and other natural resource challenges.

Rao is creating his LSEN network in western North Carolina, an area in the Blue Ridge Mountains that is a magnet for hikers, fishers and other nature lovers, both residents and tourists.

He believes the area is prime for small-scale engagements, for example reaching out to gardening clubs or K-12 schools, can lead to a better, more personal understanding of climate change and the global challenges that come with it.

Rao says the key to a good connection is to know and respect the audience. A lecture on the dangers of sea level rise won’t do much to engage people living hundreds of miles from the ocean. Instead, zero in on what’s important to them, whether they are store owners or recreational fishers.

“[I might talk] about the change of the water temperature affecting the trout populations in freshwater, [or] the cold-water systems in the mountains here, which are a big economic resource for the region,” he says.

Another region-specific example is how the calendar for viewing autumn leaf color is changing because of our warming climate.

“The period where you have the peak foliage, that usually coincides with the time where you have the highest tourism business in town. That can be a connection you can make with business people, [and] with tourism people because that affects their livelihoods as well,” says Rao.

Rao believes trusted relationships among scientists and civic leaders could then guide future research, so that everyone understands the steps they should take to make their regions more climate resilient.

Rao’s research fits right into that goal. It involves combining years of land-based temperature data with satellite observations. A better understanding and analysis of that historical information can be used to improve climate prediction.

“We use a computer model to combine those two sources of data together to improve the quality that we can get from those satellite data,” Rao says. “We can really understand the local and regional change of temperature, and how it's affecting the ecosystem of the community, to prepare for a more sustainable future for the lands that we are all living in. And that's a really exciting development.”.

Rao is delighted with the location of his current university home, and where he is building one of the first LSEN networks for scientists and engineers in the Western North Carolina region, surrounded by miles of hiking trails and waterways full of adventures for anyone who loves the natural environment.

“I can get off work around five and then pack my dinner and then just go on the [Blue Ridge] Parkway and do about an hour or two hiking and still watch the sunset. It's a lovely way of relaxing and connecting with nature.”

Join the Western North Carolina LSEN.

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Marsha Walton

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