Looking up and looking forward

Atmospheric scientist Atul Jain is recognized for vital insights into the future of our climate

Of the nearly 30 years that Atul Jain has worked as an atmospheric sciences researcher and professor at the University of Illinois, the last one was a standout. In 2023, Jain was named for the third consecutive year to the annual Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researchers list, for individuals whose research has been exceptionally influential. In 2022, he was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was awarded in 2023.

In 2023, he was also named a fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) for innovative accomplishments within the scientific community. Fewer than 0.1 percent of AGU members are named fellows. In naming him a fellow, the AGU cited Jain’s “seminal improvements to the understanding of land-climate interactions and the accurate representation of biogeophysical, biogeochemical, ecological, and land use/land cover change processes in Earth system models.”

Jain is a world-renowned expert in global climate change studies, having established a record of leading, innovative, and multi-disciplinary research into how changes in greenhouse gases, biogeochemical cycles, and land cover will affect climate by examining impacts on both human society and the natural environment. He and his research team have developed an integrated science assessment model (ISAM) and a state-of-the-art land surface modeling (LSM) framework that is the most advanced among a new generation of LSMs representing biogeochemical and biophysical processes and human activities affecting the climate system.

He is widely recognized for his contributions and leadership to international assessments of climate change. Jain is one of a selected group of scientists from around the world chosen to author major climate assessment reports for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Science, and the Global Carbon Project.

Originally from India, Jain is the first scientist in his family and has spent his life moving around the world to follow his passion for climate research. He is drawn to this field because of its interdisciplinary nature.

“The interdisciplinary nature of climate change research in the U.S. allowed me to incorporate perspectives from various scientific disciplines and policy considerations,” said Jain. After graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi with a PhD in atmospheric sciences, he worked as a research scientist at the University of Münster in Germany and at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California before arriving at the University of Illinois in 1995.

Along the way, he said, he experienced personal and professional growth. He found that teaching methods, research expectations, and emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration differed from what he was accustomed to before moving to the U.S.

“Without a doubt, (arriving in the U.S.) was a chapter in my life that shaped my career and enriched my understanding of the interconnectedness of environmental issues on a global scale,” said Jain.

Aside from his research, Jain also teaches many climate change courses and works as an affiliate of the Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the School of Information Sciences, the Discovery Partners Institute, the Center for Global Studies, and the Center for South Asian & Middle East Studies.

Jain believes that focusing on one’s successes instead of dwelling on setbacks leads to a happier and more productive life.

“Every day is not a successful day,” Jain said. “When achievements occur, they not only bring a sense of fulfillment but also teach valuable lessons during challenges and failures. It is these learning curves that are indispensable for progress in the future.”

He encourages his students to pursue the same mindset, and the successes achieved by Jain and researchers in his lab—many of them graduate students who now work as professors and researchers elsewhere—have become increasingly relevant as climate change has become more pronounced and observed. 

“Climate change is emerging as a crucial widely discussed topic,” Jain explained. “I would say that climate research is becoming one of the more challenging research areas because it’s no longer solely about understanding and advancing the scientific understanding of climate change, but we must also address how we can mitigate and adapt to its profound impacts.”

By his way of looking at it, however, the future isn’t one to shy away from, but one to face with the spirit of learning and collaboration.

“I’m looking forward to the rest of my career years,” Jain said. “I continue to work on novel and exciting research avenues related to climate change, aiming to advance our understanding of human impacts on the Earth’s climate system.”

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of The Quadrangle.

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Ella Dame