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Gabriella Lewis
NASA Disasters

NASA’s Earth Applied Sciences Disasters program area recently welcomed a new program manager, Dr. Shanna McClain. Dr. McClain joined NASA in 2017 and has since worked as a science and technology policy fellow, the global partnerships manager, the risk reduction and resilience advisor, and now a program manager. Her prolific background includes prior positions with the Environmental Law Institute and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). Keep reading to learn more about Dr. McClain’s approach to disaster management and goals for the program.


Your background is in Environmental Science. Are you planning on taking a more environmental approach to disaster management?

Shanna McClain Headshot
Disasters Program Manager Dr. Shanna McClain. Credits: NASA/ Shanna McClain

“I think my environmental science degree puts me at a unique advantage for understanding the different ways our environment creates shocks and stresses that put peoples’ lives and livelihoods at risk. I’d like to reduce that risk by using my environmental science knowledge. I don’t think you can have a disasters program without the environment. In the short term, we’re looking at changes in rainfall and wind patterns that lead to different types of disasters. In the long term, we’re looking at climate trends so that we understand how wet or dry different seasons are going to be and what type of disasters those are going to lead toward. In my mind, you can’t have the disaster without the environment, and you can’t manage the disaster without considering the environment.”

What is your vision for the Disasters program?

“At NASA, by design, we have a lot of really amazing Earth scientists, but some of the most challenging problems of today require a diverse perspective. The vision that I have for our program is to create an inclusive and interdisciplinary program that, in part, leverages Earth science information and all the expertise that we have, but then really connects that to the other parts of our world – into society, enabling us to build more resilient and climate-smart communities. And that’s only going to be accomplished by having diverse perspectives, diverse teams, and people with different backgrounds and expertise. So, I want to see us build a more diverse and interdisciplinary team moving forward to accomplish that goal. 
There is also an educational component that I think is historically missing from our program that we have an opportunity to correct: what does risk look like, what does it mean, how do we communicate risk, and why do people matter? This is something we have a lot of opportunity to explore.”

What is the greatest opportunity for the Disasters program right now?

“Now, more than ever, we see people that are focused on human and environmental interactions and understanding what kinds of impacts climate change will have on this nexus. We also have growing international and domestic interest in getting ahead of the disasters before they occur. One of the Disasters program’s largest opportunities is through partnerships with humanitarian actors and emergency managers. Together, we can use Earth science information to anticipate a disaster before it happens, by understanding that certain disasters have seasonal and sub-seasonal variability to them, which enables us to determine triggers for specific types of action. Much of this is underpinned by the science we develop. So, there are opportunities for us that lie in not only understanding how to build improved climate resilience, but also by supporting entities that are interested in working on anticipatory action. This way, we can not only respond to disasters, but get the science to support decisions ahead of time so communities can then mitigate potential impacts. I see this as a large opportunity, and I look forward to focusing on it with my new role.”

Shanna McClain speaks with a member of the United Nations Development Programme at a Rohingyan refugee camp. NASA provided the displaced community with data to reduce landslide risk in the refugee camps. NOTE: Some details in this photograph have been digitally obscured. Credits: NASA/Shanna McClain
Shanna McClain speaks with a member of the United Nations Development Programme at a Rohingyan refugee camp. NASA provided the displaced community with data to reduce landslide risk in the refugee camps. NOTE: Some details in this photograph have been digitally obscured. Credits: NASA / Shanna McClain

What has surprised you about working with the NASA Disasters program so far?

“What do I find surprising about the Disasters program? There are so many people across all of NASA who are really dedicated to seeing the science behind disasters improve. I mean, I’ve never seen a more excited and dedicated group of people. That’s exciting because there’s a long road ahead of us, and I need as much energy, creativity, and innovation from everyone as they’ve got to help continue the great work they’ve been doing, but also begin to tackle really complex problems with new and innovative approaches where the science has yet to be fully developed – in a way, we have to be willing to do things that have not yet been done before in order to support the understanding and mitigation of future disasters.”

What excites you most about your new role as NASA Disasters Program Manager?

“I love people, I love the human mind, and I think that we are capable of such incredible things. Disasters have happened forever, but I think that what excites me about this opportunity is the fact that it allows me to create almost unlimited partnerships and engage with anyone who wants to find a new path to managing disasters, reducing risk, and building resilience. Not everybody has the opportunity to find partners anywhere in the world that want to make a change in how we globally manage these types of events. That’s exciting to me – it allows for almost ultimate innovation. There’s no limitation to who we can partner with and what we can do for disaster management.”

Are there any new concepts you plan to bring to the Disasters program?

“Outside of NASA, I work with people who are on the policy side of disasters and crises to help advance the thinking behind concepts such as migration with dignity. When people migrate, they don’t always have the tools they need to move successfully, and many times their human rights and their dignity rights are completely thrown to the wayside. I’ve been working with the International Organization of Migration, the Environmental Law Institute, Dignity Rights International, and others to create a policy framework to help people migrate with dignity, and I just published a new special issue in the journal of disaster research based on my work. I expect over time to better integrate migration and displacement into our program, as well as conflict and peace.”

Learn more about Dr. McClain’s work with migration and displacement.

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