Jessica Tierney

2014 James B. Macelwane Medal Winner

Rajdeep Dasgupta, Christian Frankenberg, J. Taylor Perron, David Lawrence Shuster, and Jessica Erin Tierney were awarded the 2014 James B. Macelwane Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 17 December 2014 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “significant contributions to the geophysical sciences by an outstanding early career scientist.”


Jess Tierney has made lasting contributions to paleoclimate research through the development, testing, and application of organic biomarkers in key regions of the tropics. Her records provide valuable estimates of past hydrological variability in areas where traditional paleoclimate records are sparse, best illustrated by her extensive work in tropical Africa. Such reconstructions serve to constrain the bounds of natural climate variability while characterizing the sensitivity of the climate system to past climate forcings—information of vital interest to society under continued climate change.

During her graduate work at Brown, she generated several important tropical paleoclimate records and began to work through the complexities of multiproxy records in earnest. Seeking to increase the utility of organic biomarker records like those she generated during her dissertation research, she completed an ambitious effort to refine the community’s understanding of such records. It was during her postdoctoral tenure that she began to work with climate model output, collaborating with a range of top climate modelers on questions at the interface of paleoclimate and climate dynamics.

Early investments in expanding her conceptual and analytical tool kits has equipped Jess to tackle the most pressing questions in paleoclimate, which often require collaborations with climate modelers. Her latest achievements include a sophisticated comparison of paleoclimate data with output from models, demonstrating the potential for paleoclimate data to provide much-needed tests of model accuracy. Increasingly, climate scientists are turning to paleoclimate data sets to test the accuracy of the complex numerical climate models that are used to simulate future climate trends. Jess is a true pioneer in such data-model comparisons and has already made seminal contributions in this rapidly evolving field. In this regard, the quantification and representation of uncertainty in paleoclimate data lie at the core of her research endeavors, and her contributions in this area are helping to define best practices across the field. The fact that much of her published work has appeared in high-profile journals is a testament to the excellence and relevance of her research.

Jess combines a strong vision for paleoclimate science with the skills and leadership qualities necessary to move the field to its next level of evolution—one focused on delivering rigorous constraints on climate variability and change in sensitive areas of the Earth’s climate system.

—Kim Cobb, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Ga.


Thank you, Kim, and my thanks to the Macelwane committee and to AGU. It is truly an honor to receive this award and to join the company of the many prestigious colleagues who are past recipients of this medal.

My love of studying past climate change began with a deep appreciation for history. Historical precedence and legacy can explain the present state of world affairs and can shed light on the future evolution of society. Similarly, Earth history reveals much about the present behavior and future state of the climate system. Through my research, I strive to understand past climates, with an eye toward placing the fate of our Earth in a greater context. I believe that new and evolving techniques, geochemical and statistical, can move us forward in this respect.

I would not be receiving this award without the encouragement and support of many wonderful mentors and collaborators. During my time as a postdoctoral scholar at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, I was fortunate to be mentored by Peter deMenocal, who went above and beyond to support me, to help me meet top researchers in the field, and to engage me in interesting questions in paleoclimatology. While at Lamont, I also had the privilege to collaborate with Ben Cook, Allegra LeGrande, Gavin Schmidt, Richard Seager, and Jason Smerdon, who expanded my knowledge of climate dynamics and climate modeling. I continue to learn new things from my research with my talented collaborators and friends Pedro DiNezio and Martin Tingley.

I owe a huge debt to the organic geochemistry field, a discipline that has been so welcoming to young researchers. In particular, I want to thank Kate Freeman and Ann Pearson—two visionary scientists who, as leaders in the field, are role models for me. I also want to thank Rich Pancost, Jaap Sinninghe Damsté, and Mark Pagani, who have always generously provided analytical resources, their unique insights, and invaluable advice.

I also want to thank my family, in particular my wonderful husband and fellow paleoclimatologist, Kevin Anchukaitis, with whom I am truly blessed to share my life and science.

Finally, I would like to thank all of the women in science who have made it possible, through their perseverance, strength, and example, for me to receive this award. I hope that AGU will continue to recognize, support, and honor the extraordinary achievements of women in the geosciences.

—Jessica Erin Tierney, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Mass.