The United Nations Environment Program is responsible for assisting countries in the collection of environmental data for more informed development, improving their quality of life without compromising that of future generations. Jacqueline McGlade, formerly the executive director of the European Environment Agency for ten years, recently joined this group as Chief Scientist, bringing her passion for sensors and information systems. Sensors & Systems (S&S) special correspondent Matteo Luccio spoke with McGlade about her background, about harnessing today’s technology to understand the environment around us, and about the importance of geospatial technology to derive understanding from big data.
S&S: What inspired you to go into science and, in particular, into marine biology and environmental informatics?
McGlade: I was brought up living by the sea and it was just one of those crazy magnetic effects. I felt that I knew more about the sea, by the time I was ten years old, than about anything else. I went sailing, I was in the water every day and, if I had a choice it would probably be my medium of choice rather than being on land. What was fascinating in terms of science was that it was clear that the natural world represented the whole mixture. Although I was studying physics, chemistry, and biology, I saw that they all came together in ecosystems. I really never had any doubts that I wanted to be a marine ecologist, right from the very beginning. Then, more and more, as I got interested in what was happening in the world, even when I was quite young—and particularly because I was sailing a lot and doing lots of analytical work and looking at the weather and race tactics and so on—I began to understand the importance of forecasting, of having information so that you could really do things which may be quite critical. That is why I chose to go into marine sciences.
S&S: Do you scuba dive?
McGlade: I have been scuba diving since I was 15. In those days, it was quite young to do that. What fascinated me was anything to do with being able to go under water, to be immersed in the whole ecology that I wanted to study. I’ve been on expeditions to places where no one has ever been before, where no humans have ever dived. I’ve seen many species around the world that had not yet been described. That, combined with sailing, has been just a passion for me. I am a water baby, if you might call it that.