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Tribute to Steve Schneider

As E-IPER's faculty co-director (with founding director Rob Dunbar), Steve truly brought the program to life, nurturing it from an idea on paper to the vibrant intellectual community it is today. Steve interviewed each of the students in the first three PhD cohorts and introduced nearly all to the world of "interdisciplinarity" in one of the first classes they took at Stanford. He advised and mentored both E-IPER PhD and Joint MS students, sharing his conviction that interdisciplinary approaches are key to successfully address the world's most pressing problems. Steve encouraged students to trust their own passions, to strive to communicate their work accurately, and to make an impact on the world. Thank you, Steve. We will miss you.

Steve is in all of our thoughts. Below are a few memories from E-IPER students.

What a loss for climate science and the world, for Stanford, for E-IPER, for Steve's students, and for Terry and the rest of Steve's family. I'm sitting here stunned in my office at Sandia in Albuquerque thinking back to so many interactions with Steve, many of which were truly life changing for me. I'm recalling my initial phone interview with him when I applied to IPER in early 2002 - he was still in the hospital after going through his bone marrow transplant, and he completely intimidated me with his discussion of interdisciplinary vs. multidisciplinary vs. transdisciplinary. Then my initial in-person interview with him when I visited Stanford a few weeks later completely convinced me both that I wanted to do an IPER PhD and that I was actually capable of it. It was the first day Steve's doctors allowed him back on campus and he was wearing a respirator to ward off infection - didn't seem to dampen his spirit, and his enthusiasm, dedication, and love for his work were completely contagious. Steve served as my first-year advisor, chaired my defense committee, and gave me needed advice and encouragement along the way, as he did for many many students. ~Beth Richards

 Steve led such an exceptional life that touched upon so many scholars and the entire climate world. I will miss him dearly, forever.  ~Xuehua Zhang

 I first met him as a college junior in 1997 and was blown away by his brilliance, passion and integrity (and how much data he could cram into a single slide). He was my senior thesis advisor, and always made time for meetings with me amidst his many other commitments (including as a careful editor, making copious red scrawled notes on my thesis drafts). I remember two conversations with him most vividly. In the first, we were talking about science communication. His advice was to "talk to the media often, or not at all." This was because "sometimes they'll screw up your message, but if you do it often enough, the majority of the time they'll get it right, and the net effect will be beneficial, the truth will win out." This was of great comfort to me after a slight misquote of me last winter in a local paper led to a big flurry of criticism; I took it as part of the territory (though I always try to be clearer). Steve's calm demeanor, candor, and utter command of the facts (and the unknowns), as well as his ability to use clear, vivid phrases like "using the atmosphere as a free sewer for our climate pollution", made him an outstanding role model of a communicator of science.

The other conversation that stands out for me was during a slump in my 2nd year in IPER- what will my dissertation be, how will I ever get it done, what good will it ever do anyway, how can I hope to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere by anything more than a tiny fraction of 1ppm, and that's not nearly enough to do any good... etc. Steve let me vent, and then said he had been in a similar position in grad school once (and think how much poorer we'd all be if he'd stopped there!). Then he said, "I didn't make anything happen that wouldn't have happened otherwise. Other people would have come along and done it eventually. But someone told me that I had sped up the process, that I probably helped the IPCC happen a year or two faster than it would have otherwise. So that's my contribution, and I have to keep pushing forward, along with everyone else working on these important problems. It's like steering a huge, slow ship with a tiny rudder...but it does eventually turn." Let's honor him by keeping up the good fight.  ~Kim Nicholas Cahill

 My memories are similar to others in terms of Steve's vivacious and loquacious yet warm and endearing personality. For me my most vivid memory was my admissions interview with Steve. Steve calls me in to his office and the next thing I know he is talking rapidly and eloquently (and if I think rapidly then it was rapidly since we all know how fast I talk) about interdisciplinarity and science and policy and media and philosophy and how to link everything together. I was desperately trying to jot down notes not sure what I was supposed to be taking away from the conversation and yet entranced by his clearly well thought-out and remarkably astute views on what it means to be interdisciplinary and the advantages of multi-disciplinary scholarship. Suddenly he stopped talking. I looked up and he said "Tell me your PhD dissertation title and basic content." I have absolutely no recollection of what I managed to babble out. Somehow words came. And he listened intently and said "good" and then launched right back into another 15 minutes of philosophizing. Finally, he took a breath, and said, "Hank Shugart (one of my professors at my undergraduate institution) likes you. A lot. Hank wouldn't like someone easily. He's a good judge of character. That bodes well for you. Becca, it was a pleasure meeting you."

For that much wisdom to reside in one mind is miraculous. Steve had unending insights into a wide array of topics, but I most remember his passion for the benefits of being truly interdisciplinary. He was the perfect first co-director for IPER and he helped make the program the success it is today. Despite being one of the busiest people in the world, he always had time for us IPERites and I didn't do anything at all related to climate change. He always asked me how I was doing if we ran into each other and his passion for the program and its students was unending.  ~Rebecca Goldman

 In the past three days since hearing of Steve's untimely death, he has popped into my thoughts countless times. I, too, find myself smiling with the memory of our first encounter during my IPER interview. My experience mirrors Kim's and Becca's, something akin to drinking from a fire hose. When I arrived late for my next interview, "Sorry, I was way across campus with Steve Schneider" was explanation enough for Buzz, who smiled knowingly.

As my academic interests broadened into ethical analysis, I was surprised to find Steve as one of my strongest mentors. I hadn't expected a probabilistic-analyst-engineer-biologist to be so engaged in my work. Yet he was incredibly present in my education, in too many ways to list. In particular, I valued that Steve never allowed sloppy analytical thinking even if our opinions overlapped -- his deep knowledge of ethical theory always kept me on my toes.

Along with the hard questions, he offered profound and sincere encouragement for interdisciplinary science. About a year ago, I talked to him about a paper idea – I worried that it would never find a home because it was too "off the wall" for a mainstream journal (read: interdisciplinary). His words, "Send it to me – that's exactly the kind of thing we want," did more for my confidence about the worth of my research than any journal acceptance letter has -- because they came from someone I trusted, greatly admired, and deeply respected, and whom I will dearly miss.  ~Kirsten Oleson

 I am so grateful for having the chance to have such a small IPER 310 class with Steve Schneider during my first year. 

~Heather Lukacs


Steve was a joy to be around - he always made me chuckle. He was inspiring. I miss him already. He will be missed greatly. I am sad for all of our loss. I felt that he was one of the few who knew where we were coming from, and why.  ~Adam Leising

 Steve taught me the meaning and importance of interdisciplinary research. He once described it as "operating on the fringes of disciplines, integrating their principles to tackle problems that they individually cannot solve". This phrase stuck in my mind, and its meaning has slowly revealed itself as I delved into my research. This was one of Steve's many unique gifts – when you first meet him, he bombards you with powerful metaphors, examples and phrases that capture the essence of his ideas. They stick in your head for their eloquence, and always end up making you think differently. "Falsification is a false paradigm" – he would say. How pithy is that! His lectures on the importance of uncertainty, the "tails of the distribution" and the "myth of value-free science" remain etched in all his students' minds.

There are many things to admire about Steve. His indefatigable commitment to his cause, and to education, to his students, and to academic integrity, all of which he adhered to with unfathomable stamina despite great physical duress, reflected his generous nature. He was kind and generous to his students, always encouraging and helpful. I was his TA twice, including in the last few months before his passing. Despite his deteriorating health, he rarely missed class, that too only if he was flying somewhere to give another talk. Even though I had heard his presentations numerous times, I always learned something new, right up until his last class.

But what I admire most about Steve is his intellectual versatility and good nature - despite being a climate scientist at his core, he had an amazing capacity to talk in the language of economics, politics, ethics or sociology, and to incorporate these perspectives into his views and his communication – he cared about justice, about other people, and other points of view. He always understood the big picture, and somehow combined this balanced perspective with a passionate and unwavering commitment to drive change. I don't know anyone with his skills and personality. I will miss him.  ~Narasimha Rao

 Steve's passion for his work, for our world, and for what us young scholars could do, and his honesty about navigating between academia and activism and communicating your message, and his sense of humor, straight forwardness, and amazing riffs on so many things made an impression on so many of us for always.  ~Mehana Blaich Vaughan

 The public sees the MacArthur Genius side–the brilliant scientist. He is more brilliant than I can even describe! He has an amazing knack for communicating the complex science and policy of climate change in ways people can relate to. He is very down to earth. He never made me feel intimidated. Of course I did feel that way at times, but it was coming from me, not from him. In a day, the amount of work this man accomplishes is mindboggling. He is unassuming, humble, and practical. He makes his own tea and cracks jokes all the time. He is so very inspiring! He reminds me of my mother because they both have a lot of integrity. For me, another dream came true when they met this summer.

Steve will battle with his colleagues if he feels something is being done in a way that's not right, scientifically or ethically. He is a stellar example not just of how to teach, but of how to live. He will take you from where you are and raise you to your highest potential, without making overt gestures. He makes suggestions that challenge you, and expresses faith in your success just by virtue of thinking you capable of that task. He accepts you as you are, yet respects you as if you'd already reached your highest potential. He changes lives every day. He changed mine.  ~Marilyn Cornelius

 Steve was so much larger than life to me I can't even imagine a world without him. All I know is that it will be so much grayer without him leading the good fight. I feel like he was the father of our program and in many ways a mentor for so many of us. In fact all the way out in the middle of nowhere just yesterday in the forest of Para, I was talking to a Danish woman who studies climate policy and the communication of science about Steve and we were just going on and on about how amazing he is.  ~Rachael Garrett

 Steve was frustrated, yet not stifled by the system. He, instead, saw a way to reinvent it. Truly, an interdisciplinary warrior. Above all Steve, was a great person: warm, supportive and full of life. Steve, we will miss you.  ~Ed Castano

Submitted on Dec 31, 1969