Vanda Grubisic receives high honor from "old country"

EOL director takes inspiration from fellow Croatian scientist

December 11, 2015 | Vanda Grubišić has become the first atmospheric scientist and the first woman to receive one of the top science honors in her birth country of Croatia – the Spiridion Brusina Medal. 

"It's nice to be recognized by my Croatian colleagues," said the NCAR senior scientist, who directs NCAR's Earth Observing Laboratory (EOL). She received the medal from the Croatian Society of Natural Sciences at a ceremony in Zagreb, Croatia, at the end of November.

Vanda Grubisic receiving award from Croatian Society of Natural Sciences official
NCAR's Vanda Grubišić recently received a top science medal from the Croatian Society of Natural Sciences. (Photo courtesy Vinko Grubišić.)

An inspiring predecessor

Rather than expounding on her achievement, Grubišić in a recent interview discussed the accomplishments of the late Croatian scientist Andrija Mohorovičić.

Mohorovičić is credited with identifying the boundary between Earth’s crust and the underlying mantle, a region now known as the Moho. He has served as an inspiration to Grubišić as an all-around scientist, even as she has been collecting accolades of her own.

This pioneering Croatian seismologist started his career as a meteorologist. Standing out among his early publications was one on observations of stationary lee clouds during bora wind events on the east coast of the Adriatic, now called rotor clouds.

"He was a keen observer and a good physicist and the conceptual model he came up with, based on a very limited set of observations, was essentially right," said Grubišić, displaying a biography of the scientist that she bought years ago.

Grubišić is well known for her work on atmospheric rotors as well as other phenomena in complex terrain such as atmospheric wakes. Nearly a decade ago, she led T-REX (Terrain-Induced Rotor Experiment), a large international field campaign that focused on the phenomenon and its links to mountain waves and the underlying boundary layer. The goal was to learn about the causes of severe turbulence that one often finds in large mountain ranges. The body of work that has come out of T-REX has helped improve turbulence forecasts and aviation safety in mountainous terrain.

Medaling in atmospheric science

The Croatian medal was awarded in recognition of Grubišić's accomplishments in research on atmospheric processes in complex terrain; her extensive collaboration with colleagues in Croatia, including her mentoring of young Croatian meteorologists; and her promotion of Croatian science abroad.

The Spiridion Brusina medal, named after a Croatian zoologist, has been awarded annually since 1997. The 2012 winner was the Swedish evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo. "It’s certainly an honor to be in that group of scientists," Grubišić said.

Grubišić said she first became interested in science in high school. "I was an all-around excellent student and I became fascinated with weather."

She left Croatia, then part of Yugoslavia, in 1989 with her husband for both to attend graduate school at Yale University. Grubišić bought the biography of Mohorovičić (and a second copy for one of her professors) while attending Yale as a doctoral student in atmospheric sciences.

While she has lived and worked mainly in the U.S. since then, Grubišić visits Croatia once a year, and has taught and mentored graduate students at the University of Zagreb. She re-unites with those students on occasion, such as earlier this year at the International Conference on Alpine Meteorology in Innsbruck, Austria.

The biography of Andrija Mohorovičić, by the way, doesn't just occupy a space on Grubišić's bookshelf. Rather, it's displayed prominently on a wooden stand next to her desktop computer.

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer