Charles R. Chappell

Vanderbilt University

2015 Ambassador Award Winner

Space Physics and Aeronomy

Charles R. Chappell, Lucile Jones, and Gordon McBean were awarded the 2015 Ambassador Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 16 December 2015 in San Francisco, Calif. The award is in recognition for “outstanding contributions to the following area(s): societal impact, service to the Earth and space community, scientific leadership, and promotion of talent/career pool.”


Throughout his nearly half century research career in solar–terrestrial physics Rick Chappell has continuously focused his energies on communication, outreach, mentoring, and creating innovative programs that enhance the public understanding, appreciation, and support of space and Earth science. These activities were originally focused on his own discipline of space physics but have spread to include Earth science and to address the broader issue of communicating science through the media to the public.

Rick began his outreach activities first with a major museum exhibit and then a movie about magnetospheric physics. He continued his public communications through being a media spokesperson for multiple Spacelab/shuttle missions.

Chappell’s experience with the media led him to return to his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, in 1996 to conduct a study on the interaction between the science community and the media. This led to the book Worlds Apart and to the creation of a new undergraduate interdisciplinary major in the communication of science and technology. During this time he was a member of the AGU Committee on Public Outreach, being chairman for 1 year of his 3–year term.

Rick worked with colleagues to organize two -cross-​-discipline collaborative AGU conferences, one in 1974 and one in 2014, which brought together scientists from different disciplines to understand the interaction between the ionosphere and magnetosphere.

Working with John Denver’s Windstar Foundation in the late 1980s, Rick joined with scientists in Earth and space sciences to create the Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI). AGCI has now been in operation for 25 years and has involved hundreds of Earth, space, and social scientists, who have carried out the cross–discipline study of global change. AGCI has also created education outreach programs such as ground truth study activities for students at the Science Olympiad.

The NASA administrator asked Rick to work with Vice President Gore to create the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program in 1994–1995. GLOBE involves K–12 students around the world in measuring their local environment and in reporting the results online. The program now involves tens of thousands of schools in more than 100 countries.

Rick has given talks to thousands of students of all ages and continues to be a leader in communications and educational outreach. I cannot think of anybody more deserving of the AGU Ambassador Award.

—Andrew Nagy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


I am honored and deeply grateful for being selected as an AGU Ambassador. My career has been about space exploration and communicating the results and importance of that exploration to the public, especially to the teachers and students. To be recognized for these communication and outreach activities is most meaningful to me.

As scientists, we all start our exploration journey in a limited area of study. As we grow in our understanding, the interdisciplinary nature of science leads us to work with explorers in other fields. Whether it is the relationship between the Sun and the Earth or the changing global environment, it is critically important to cross disciplines and interact with other scientists to piece together the big picture.

In my career I have worked to facilitate -cross-​–discipline exploration through both planning interdisciplinary Chapman conferences and creating organizations such as the Aspen Global Change Institute.  It is in this environment that sharing and learning take place and the broader research challenges are met through new partnerships.

For each of us explorers, taking time to communicate as individuals and as groups is critical, particularly in this time of the confusing politicization of science in areas such as global change. We owe a continued, understandable report to the public which funded our research, and we owe a period of giving back through teaching, interacting with teachers, and mentoring the young student explorers of the future. Programs such as GLOBE bring scientists, teachers, and K–12 students together to share knowledge while measuring their local environment. In this hands–on way, students become explorers who are sensitive to the changing environment around them. It was a great pleasure to work with Vice President Gore to help create this interagency program.

As scientists, we are given the great privilege of living the adventure of exploration and of doing and learning things that others have never done before.  We are able to “live in the what might be” where our ideas that are born, honed, and realized through teamwork can become reality and can then be shared with others.

Thanks so much to all of the incredible people who explore our world and to AGU for creating this award, which recognizes the importance of our research and the need both to communicate to those who have invested in us and to pass the torch to the next generation of explorers.

—Charles R. Chappell, Vanderbilt University, Destin, Fla.