In sixth grade, James Marshall Shepherd found out he was severely allergic to bees, which immediately brought his hopes of studying insects to an end.
After this incident the Canton, Georgia native shifted his interest to weather and went on to become an award-winning, internationally renowned weather and climate scientist.
Shepherd completed all three of his degrees at Florida State University, where he was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from the school’s meteorology department. He spent the first 12 years of his career at NASA, where he was a research meteorologist. In 2004, he was honored at the White House by President George W. Bush. In 2013, he served as president of the American Meteorological Society.
This year, Shepherd adds another accomplishment: publishing a book. His newest publication, “The Race Awakening of 2020: A 6-Step Guide For Moving Forward,” was written in about four and a half hours on a Sunday morning, he said.
On being a professor
When asked about his many jobs, like being a regular Forbes Magazine contributor or hosting The Weather Channel’s weekly podcast, “Weather Geeks,” Shepherd said his only main job is being a professor at the University of Georgia.
“He really challenges you. He takes the rubber bands off your mind and stretches them out a little bit.”
- Spencer Jones, senior UGA student
Shepherd, the director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program, has been working at UGA for almost 15 years. He’s received many awards since his start at the university, such as the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Sandy Beaver Award for Excellence in Teaching, and he’s secured millions of dollars in grant money for his research.
While Shepherd’s achievements as a professor are an indication of his teaching skills, his students say he’s one of the best. Spencer Jones, a senior atmospheric sciences and geography double-major, said Shepherd is a great instructor, and “everybody loves him.”
“He really challenges you,” Jones said. “He takes the rubber bands off your mind and stretches them out a little bit.”
Jones, who’s taken two of Shepherd’s classes, said the large majority of what he’s learned within his major came from Shepherd. Andrew Thomas, a Ph.D. student from Reeders, Pennsylvania, said Shepherd has exposed him to the different ways research can be done and solidified his understanding of the atmosphere.
Seniors Rebecca Checkoway and Amanda Bowden, both double-majoring in atmospheric sciences and geography, said in addition to his wonderful teaching and networking abilities, Shepherd serves the program by making sure it’s inclusive. Shepherd takes time to highlight struggles minorities face in the field, Checkoway said. Bowden said one way Shepherd helps foster diversity in the field is through public engagement.
‘Beyond the ivory tower’
Geography professor Nik Heynen and Shepherd have worked together for almost the entirety of their time at the university. Throughout their time as colleagues, Heynen said one thing he’s been fortunate to witness is the growth of Shepherd’s interest in public engagement. For Shepherd, these acts of public engagement are part of the “end to end” process of being a scientist, he said.
This process is something Shepherd encourages his students to think about when they’re entering the field. It involves going further than the actual scientific research — it forces scientists to examine how their research will impact society and policy-making decisions, he said. It’s crucial for professors and scientists to “go beyond the ivory tower” and share their knowledge with the world, he said.
“Not only are you being a scientist, but you're also being kind of a communications major.”
- Amanda Bowden, senior UGA student
Jones said Shepherd is always looking for ways to incorporate public outreach in the Atmospheric Sciences Program. He often sends emails encouraging his students to speak at schools or even give tours of the weather apparatus on campus, Jones said.
A necessary skill for public outreach is communication, specifically writing and speaking. It’s vital to be able to share research findings “to all kinds of people, in written and verbal form,” Shepherd said. Bowden said this is something Shepherd stresses in his classes.
“Not only are you being a scientist, but you're also being kind of a communications major,” Bowden said.
Shepherd’s writing skills have allowed him to share his thoughts on subjects outside the realm of his scientific research. In a Tweet promoting his new book, he described it as one of the most important things he’d ever written.
one of most important things I have ever written. EVER. Last weekend, the pain of racism and hope of moving forward collided for me so I wrote -->https://t.co/UN9Om28nQD— Marshall Shepherd (@DrShepherd2013) June 17, 2020
I hope you will share widely and actually give this a read. It is a quick but hopefully impactful read. pic.twitter.com/sYMiKgldCx
Leading up to writing the book, Shepherd said he had been thinking about Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and experiences in his own life. What motivated him to write the book, however, were the emails and phone calls from his non-Black colleagues, asking him what they could do, he said.
“I was getting so many people reaching out about that, as were many of my other friends,” Shepherd said. “That morning I woke up and I just had a brain dump. I dumped all that out on paper.”
Like his teaching skills, Shepherd’s communication skills have won him multiple awards. Most recently, he was awarded the 2020 Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In his letter nominating Shepherd for the award, Jack Kaye, the associate director of research for NASA’s Earth Science Division, wrote, “Few scientists put as much time and effort into communicating with a broad set of audiences as Dr. Shepherd,” according to an AAAS article about the award.
‘A pretty normal guy’
Outside of the research, teaching and extensive work in public outreach Shepherd is “a pretty normal guy,” he said.
Shepherd said he likes listening to music, hanging out with friends and watching college football. Some of his most cherished memories come from his time as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha at FSU, he said. He’s a husband and a father to two teenagers, and when he’s not working, he tries to make it to his kids’ sporting events or his family’s nightly dinners, Shepherd said.
“If you look at his work size, it’s kind of amazing he’s been able to maintain that balance,” said Heynen. “He's got priorities and his family is a high priority.”
To Shepherd, though, all of the teaching, researching, writing, public outreach and spending time with family is just part of a day in the life.
“I do what I do because I want to make this earth a better place for my kids, because they're the ones that will live and deal with what we leave behind,” he said.