Young Investigator Award Goes to Environmental Decision Analyst

May 06, 2015

Melissa KenneySigma Xi’s 2015 national Young Investigator Award will be given to Dr. Melissa A. Kenney of the University of Maryland. Dr. Kenney's research broadly addresses how to integrate both uncertain scientific knowledge and societal values into decision-making. This research is inherently multidisciplinary—drawing on the fields of decision analysis, environmental sciences, and public policy—to address a range of topics including water quality policy, environmental restoration, and climate change indicators. 

Recently and most notably, she has been the lead scientist on a team that worked toward developing recommendations and a prototype set of indicators to empower decision makers with the scientific information to understand and respond to climate changes and impacts. 

The results of her team’s efforts are being announced today as the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) unveils a set of pilot indicators that will serve as a proof-of-concept for its climate indicators. Kenney’s team provided input into the indicators that were ultimately adopted by USGCRP.  

Sigma Xi will host a public, Google Hangout with Kenney about this project May 14 at 2 p.m. Eastern. To RSVP and watch, visit the event page

USGCRP’s prototype indicators system has 14 indicators, including greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and the extent of Arctic sea ice. Other indicators assess how climate is affecting our lives, such as its effects on public health and agriculture. This proof-of-concept indicators system is the first foundational product of the sustained U.S. National Climate Assessment. The 3rd U.S. National Climate Assessment was released a year ago today; Kenney was a lead author of the Decision Support chapter.

To develop indicator recommendations for USGCRP, Kenney led experts in many different disciplinary fields, spanning the physical, natural, and social sciences. The recommendations and proof-of-concept indicators were developed over the past three years with more than 200 scientists and practitioners from nine federal agencies, the private sector, and academia. Now that the system is released, Kenney’s team will be focused on evaluating the use and scale of scientific information and indicators required to support climate-resilient decisions, so that new indicators can be developed to better support user needs.

“My research is the essence of actionable science.  We conduct novel research which provides actionable information to address some of our toughest environmental challenges,” Kenney said.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's blog has an article that explains how USGCRP's climate indicators will be used for actionable climate science. 

Kenney also brings undergraduate students and science policy fellows, who are predominantly female or from underrepresented groups, to work with her research team. 

“These are the kinds of research experiences that help students or scientists understand whether they want to pursue science policy research. Not all scientific discoveries come from a laboratory!” said Kenney.

At the University of Maryland, Kenney is a research assistant professor in environmental decision analysis in the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center and the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites –Maryland. 

“Sigma Xi, as the scientific research society, is a great professional fit for multidisciplinary researchers like me. Though I am a social scientist, my research contributions usually lie in the connections between the disciplinary boxes. So it’s wonderful to be part of a society, like Sigma Xi, that celebrates the diversity of scientific contributions.”

Since 1998, Sigma Xi’s annual Young Investigator Award has recognized excellence in research. It includes a certificate of recognition, a $5,000 honorarium, and an invitation to accept the award and present a lecture at the Sigma Xi Annual Meeting. This year’s meeting will be held October 22-25 in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Kenney joined Sigma Xi in 2005 and is a member of the University of Maryland Chapter. She helped to reactivate the Duke University Chapter and served as chapter president, during which time she reinvigorated its Grants-in-Aid of Research program and created an award for post-doctoral associates to travel to conferences. She has been secretary of The Johns Hopkins University Chapter, led the national Sigma Xi Committee on Nominations, and served on the Committee on Qualifications and Membership. 

Any active member of Sigma Xi who is within 10 years of his or her highest earned degree at the time of nomination is eligible for the national Young Investigator Award. Kenney received her PhD in water quality modeling and decision analysis from Duke University in 2007.

More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety