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Interview with Sonali Shukla McDermid

  • By AMS Staff
  • Mar 27, 2023

Interview with Sonali Shukla McDermid

Sonali Shukla McDermid is excited to shepherd a new phase of development and growth for the established, open-access AMS journal Earth Interactions (EI) in her new role as editor-in-chief. She draws upon her experiences working in interdisciplinary environments—across subject areas and with experts hailing from academia, government, NGOs, and private enterprises—to craft an updated editorial and review approach for EI that embraces cross- and interdisciplinarity in investigations of Earth system interactions. 

Sonali is a trained climate scientist and associate professor of environmental studies at New York University (NYU). Her research explores a variety of interactions between the land surface and climate system, with a particular focus on agriculture as being both a driver of global environmental change and vulnerable to it. She employs a variety of tools in her research, including global and regional climate models, process-based crop models, and a range of observational and remote sensing datasets. She is also a research affiliate at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), where she helps develop the land surface component of the NASA GISS ModelE climate model for improved agricultural representation. In addition, she serves as the climate co-lead for the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project, which assesses the impact of climate change on regional and global food security and works with a range of agricultural researchers and stakeholders to design options for combined climate mitigation and adaptation in agriculture. Throughout this work, Sonali has deeply engaged across disciplinary lines to not only answer her research questions, but also to better codevelop and articulate the questions themselves. 

Additionally, over the last eight years, Sonali has made foundational contributions to building a new academic department at NYU in the highly interdisciplinary field of environmental studies. Her growing department is composed of natural scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars who collaborate closely to define the field, identify cutting-edge lines of inquiry, and develop and interrogate the approaches used to answer them. Furthermore, she previously served as the food security and planetary health section editor for the new journal CABI Agriculture and Bioscience, where she designed the section’s editorial board and approach to reflect the multiple dimensions of food security and key environmental and ecological concerns surrounding it. 

Sonali holds a B.A. in physics from NYU (2006) and an M.A. (2008), M.Phil. (2011), and Ph.D. (2012) in atmospheric science and climatology from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Prior to her appointment at NYU, she was a NASA postdoctoral fellow at NASA GISS in New York City. She was recently awarded a Fulbright-Kalam Fellowship (2020) and an Andrew Carnegie Scholar Fellowship (2021) to research climate-smart rice production in South and Southeast Asia.

BAMS: How did you get into the field?
McDermid: As an undergraduate, I held a series of student research positions that involved the use of process-based models to study atmospheric circulation, of both exoplanets and paleoclimatic conditions on Earth. This led me to a Ph.D. at Columbia University using a NASA global climate model to study monsoon circulation under mid-Pliocene Warm Period conditions. While I loved the subject, I started to gain an interest in future climate change and impacts, particularly across the global and South Asian monsoon domains (I am South Asian myself). As I finished my dissertation, a new project was starting up—the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project—and they needed someone who had looked at climate change in monsoonal climates to help integrate climate (change) information into assessments of agriculture and food security. I was pretty hooked from then on: it’s been almost exactly a decade now and my work is mostly focused on the intersection of climate, agricultural land management, and food security.

BAMS: What questions have driven your research?


•    What is the impact of agricultural land management on regional climates and natural ecosystems?

•    How does climate change impact agriculture and food security, particularly across the semiarid tropics?

•    How can we grow nutritious food that is resilient to change and nondisruptive to regional and global environments?

BAMS: What are important experiences that helped prepare you to be a chief editor?
McDermid: I think I’m still gaining experience! That acknowledged, much of my work involves communicating my science to scholars across different disciplines (my research is highly collaborative and interdisciplinary) and to a range of stakeholders and practitioners who will need to act on the information I provide. I also previously held a section editor role at another interdisciplinary science journal focused on climate change, agriculture, and food security. Consequently, I have developed a deep appreciation for the need to be clear and concise in explaining my research to diverse audiences. Beyond reporting my results, I have also learned the importance and value in clearly communicating the implications of my science—what I can and cannot say with my approaches and tools. This is particularly important for Earth Interactions, which is seeking truly interdisciplinary scholarship and appeals to a wide audience. 
BAMS: What do you think are some keys to writing a successful paper for peer review?
McDermid: Clear and concise writing across all sections. Every sentence should contribute substantively to your goals for the manuscript. For example, your introduction should clearly identify key gaps in the literature and articulate how you intend to fill them along with your main research questions. For interdisciplinary work in Earth Interactions, it is also important to emphasize how your study advances knowledge at the intersection of two or more disciplines. Also, pay close attention to axis labels and captions on figures (and the presentation of the figures themselves)—most readers will focus on these alone, so it is important as much as possible that the figures be able to “tell the story” largely on their own. 

Manuscript formatting: manuscript sections should be clearly structured in a logical order and the intents for each section clearly defined. Do not bring up new results in the discussion or leave to the results section points that were integral to the methods. The AMS manuscript templates will go a long way to mitigate confusion in the structure of your manuscript, so I encourage authors to use those. 

Ultimately, write the manuscript you would want to review. Avoid language implying that the reader should see something as “obvious,” and do not take what you believe to be clear interpretations for granted. Walk the reviewer/reader through your study deliberately.

Respond to the reviewer's comments thoughtfully, deliberately, and completely. At Earth Interactions, we work hard to recruit reviewers who will do justice to the process, particularly when reviewing interdisciplinary work. We believe the peer review process can help greatly to improve a manuscript, so taking constructive feedback seriously will serve everyone better in the end. Where possible, include revised text and figures in the response document for “easy access” for the reviewer. For those suggestions that you do not accept, provide a respectful reason as to why. This can go a long way to creating a constructive and helpful review experience. 

Lastly, at Earth Interactions, we encourage dialogue with the editorial team. Do not hesitate to contact us with questions, clarifications, and/or if any issues arise during the submission and/or review process.

BAMS: How do you see the scope of EI changing as the science changes?
McDermid: Earth system science, and its tools and approaches, are rapidly evolving, which makes the science both exciting and sometimes challenging to keep pace with. One thing we’ve recognized at EI is that, despite increasing calls for interdisciplinarity (or “multidisciplinarity” or “transdisciplinarity”), it can still be challenging to get good research through the peer review process. Interdisciplinary research requires an openness to learn about a range of tools and approaches and a willingness (and humility!) to collaborate with experts beyond one’s own subject area to build a shared foundation of knowledge. Such research can, for these reasons, take more time to do rigorously and feel more incremental. However, it is increasingly critical to further our understanding of Earth system interactions, especially related to urgent problems of global climate and environmental change. In addition, scientific training is still somewhat siloed, which makes identifying reviewers for interdisciplinary work challenging. We also need researchers highly versed in the new tools and approaches (both methodologically and intellectually) to conduct reviews. 

To better reflect changing Earth system science research, we have recently updated our scope for EI. We hope that this will capture more of the large breadth of Earth system science inquiry, including key questions and tools/approaches. To that end, we are also expanding our editorial board in the coming months to better represent the myriad Earth system processes and important interactions between Earth system components, with an emphasis on the biosphere, including human dimensions. Furthermore, we are in the process of updating our review process to help reviewers (and authors) engage more with interdisciplinarity in Earth system science research by answering a series of questions aimed at identifying such aspects of submitted manuscripts. While not every manuscript is required to be interdisciplinary, we’d like to ensure that those that are are evaluated toward that end.

BAMS: What kinds of research could be growth areas for EI?

McDermid: Earth system science and interactions is a vast subject area encompassing many kinds of research. Key research topics for which we seek manuscripts include (but certainly are not limited to!) the limitations and potentials of “natural” climate solutions; the drivers and impacts of land system change; biodiversity interactions with other Earth system components; interactions between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; human influences in changing biogeochemical cycles; Arctic ecosystem change, and cryospheric change more broadly; and sea level rise, particularly with respect to impacts and adaptation in human and natural systems. Again, this list is by no means exhaustive, and we are happy to communicate with potential authors to see if their research is a good fit for EI.

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