Bob Cook, a life in science

Mar 31, 2016

The Climate Change Science Institute’s (CCSI’s) Bob Cook, like many of his mentors and colleagues, is nothing if not modest and retiring. When approached about a story on him and his career (in recognition of his fast-approaching retirement), he demurred that he thought it was perhaps more important to do articles on people who were not retiring and were still going to be around. However, he was prevailed upon to share some of his insights and perspectives.

Cook was born and raised in Niagara Falls, New York, which, because of the Niagara River, holds a prominent place in America’s industrial revolution and the history of hydroelectric power. But in addition to its industrial heritage, the region is a place of great natural beauty. Both factors seem to have figured in his career choice.

Bob Cook kayaking on Leigh Lake at the base of Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park. (Photo courtesy of Reid Bauer, Jackson, Wyoming.)

An undergraduate chemistry major, Cook says he was interested in the environment; however, the small college he attended, Eisenhower College in Seneca, New York, didn’t have an environmental program. He was fortunate in that one of his professors brought a summer internship at Columbia University to his attention following his junior year. There he had the opportunity to combine chemistry with working on environmental problems; as a result, he went on to obtain both his master’s and his doctorate at Columbia, in geology and geochemistry, respectively. At that time Earth science and environmental research were being conducted in the geology department at Columbia. It was “biogeochemistry,” Cook says, but it was so new, the definition hadn’t yet “solidified.” And it was multidisciplinary, something important to him.

After obtaining his PhD, Cook spent a year as a postdoc in Sweden, studying the interactions of sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon cycles as part of a United Nations Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) project. His postdoc advisor was one of the giants of 20th century Earth/climate science, Bert Bolin, first chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Bolin and Cook coedited the SCOPE 21 report, The Major Biogeochemical Cycles and Their Interactions (1983), which has become one of the classics in the field, still cited and still receiving major kudos. (A version recently published on was downloaded more than 2,000 times in the first month, with rave reviews.)

Following his postdoc year in Sweden, Cook assumed a position in Minnesota, performing limnologic studies focusing on lake acidification, before being lured to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) by Jerry Ellwood (former Environmental Sciences Division section head) in 1986. He continued his work on lake acidification and acid deposition at ORNL, including participating in a major national assessment of the impacts of acid deposition.

All of this changed in 1997 when he was recruited to work at the ORNL Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC) for Biogeochemical Dynamics (DAAC), one of 12 NASA-funded DAACs, as chief scientist. During his tenure at DAAC, he has been a principal investigator on numerous projects, including the NASA Modeling and Synthesis Thematic Data Center, which provided data management support to the North American Carbon Program.

Making data useful

As indicated in a previous CCSI article, DAAC is more than just a place where data are archived and put on the metaphorical shelf to collect dust. “We want to make sure that what is put on the shelf is really useful to people,” Cook says. This means creating tools to make the data sets more useful and the process of accessing them almost transparent. To do this, a scientific perspective is needed to interface between the data and the scientists who will use the data “We want to make sure that the data files are so well described and documented that any scientist can pick them up and use them,” Cook says. And that takes a scientist. It was in recognition of this that NASA created the position of chief scientist at all the DAACs. In addition to data analysis and coordination, the chief scientists perform a QC function for the data.

The long view

The colleagues he has had over the years have been among the real joys of his career, Cook says. “Everyone brings something to the table to address the important scientific questions we work with. You can’t really do it by yourself or even in a small group. Working with others you learn so much, and that’s exciting.”

He says he has been blessed to work with some of the giants in the field of Earth science, including Bolin; Dave Schindler, a fellow limnologist whose work led to the banning of phosphates in detergents; Gilbert F. White, a geographer who has been called both “the father of floodplain management” and the “leading environmental geographer of the 20th century”; and Wally Broecker, a geochemist best known for his discovery of the role of ocean circulation in climate change and for coining the phrase “global warming.”

Cook is pleased with the many large, inter-/multidisciplinary projects we are seeing nowadays, including the synthesis activities of which he has been a part. The really interesting thing about multidisciplinary projects, he says, is that it’s the same world, but you get different viewpoints and perspectives when researchers from different disciplines look at things through discipline-tinted glasses. And synthesis activities can produce truly original insights.

What’s next

With one daughter in Seattle and another in Jackson, Wyoming, Cook is not ruling out a move to another part of the country. But for now, with his youngest daughter still in school at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, he says he and his wife are anchored here. After a lifetime in science and working hard on his career, he thinks “it’s time to relax.” And that includes a lot of basketball, tennis, and other leisure/family activities and trips he says.

Happy trails. You will be missed.

To read more about Cook’s work, please see the recent article at To read more about Cook, please go to the CCSI website at


By VJ Ewing.