LaToya Myles, Ph.D., is the first African American to lead the Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division (ATDD) lab in its 73-year history.
Less than two decades after she graduated from Florida A&M University, LaToya Myles, Ph.D., was appointed director of the Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Division (ATDD) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Air Resources Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Myles, the first woman and the first African American to serve as ATDD director in its 73-year history, was also the first doctoral student of FAMU President Larry Robinson, Ph.D., when he headed the Environmental Sciences Institute.
“I’ve always been interested in science; I’ve always wanted to understand how things work and why,” said Myles. “I didn’t hear or know about NOAA until I was at FAMU. Dr. Robinson encouraged me to apply for a NOAA fellowship. It was life-changing and career-defining for me.”
In 2004, Myles earned her Ph.D. through the NOAA Environmental Cooperative Science Center, now the FAMU Center for Coastal and Marine Ecosystems, which Robinson heads. She conducted research in collaboration with the NOAA Air Resources Laboratory for an interdisciplinary dissertation focusing on atmospheric deposition of pollutants and their impact on ecosystems. Her study had implications for both human and environmental health.
As director of ATDD, Myles heads one of several field divisions of NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory. Her team tries to understand what’s happening physically and chemically in the lowest layer of the atmosphere where we live and breathe.
Researchers are also trying to understand the physical aspects, such as how winds move and change as they cross regions or countries and how storms begin to form.
“One of our programs is trying to understand why there are more severe storms and more severe weather in the Southeastern United States,” she said. “Historically, we’ve always thought of Tornado Alley being the Plains, Kansas and Oklahoma and those areas. But in recent years, they’ve been more severe weather events along the border between Alabama and Tennessee and Mississippi,” she added. “We’re conducting research to try to understand what conditions have changed that are helping to create those severe storms.”
Getting to FAMU
Myles grew up in the small town of Kosciusko, Mississippi, about 70 miles north of Jackson. After high school graduation, she headed two hours south to Alcorn State University (ASU), a historically Black College and University (HBCU). She thought of becoming a physician, so she pursued a double major – chemistry and biology. On the Alcorn campus, after a series of internships and co-op experiences, she discovered her passion for research.
Myles was mentored by Joseph Russell, Ph.D., then longtime chairman of the Chemistry Department at ASU. During the summers, Russell had done research alongside fellow nuclear scientist Robinson, who was then employed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. When Myles expressed interest in grad school, Russell recommended one person.
“The first name he mentioned was Dr. Larry Robinson; he said, ‘he has a good program at FAMU and it would be a good fit,’” Myles recalled. “That’s how I ended up at the FAMU Environmental Sciences Institute working with Dr. Robinson.”
Robinson moved to FAMU full-time to lead the Environmental Sciences Institute in 1997 after a stint as an adjunct faculty member. Following her graduation from ASU with her bachelor’s, Myles went straight into the FAMU Ph.D. program.
“She could have gone anywhere,” said Robinson, who was impressed by Myles’ intelligence and her work ethic. “She’s a brilliant young lady. I never had to encourage her to work hard. She has one of the most pleasant engaging personalities. All of the staff in the Environmental studies program thought very highly of her.”
One important lesson Myles learned from Robinson was that being a great scientist wasn’t just about science.
“I learned from him to bring my whole self into my work as a scientist and to bring my experiences that I grew up with, family interactions, community interactions, what I learned at the HBCUs that nurtured me and bring all of that with me as I go throughout my career,” she said. “Those interactions are important because a lot of times, in the scientific spaces, those different perspectives are not well represented.”
School of the Environment Dean Victor Ibeanusi, Ph.D., said Myles is a great representative of FAMU’s program. Her success is an “affirmation of the active research engagements through funds from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, which has kept the School of the Environment at the forefront of training new generations of students,” he said.
Being a Mentor
Myles is committed to being a mentor to those bright, young students.
“It is difficult for students to envision themselves in careers where they don’t see someone who shares some of their attributes doing that job,” Myles said. “That’s one of the reasons why I like to visit K-12 classrooms.”
She works with organizations who are focused on how to get students excited early on about careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), specifically careers in the geosciences. Myles is also part of several National Science Foundation (NSF) funded efforts that are looking at how to recruit and retain STEM students.
“We want to provide them with opportunities to grow and learn so that when they are making decisions about careers, it will feel like a natural choice to be part of a scientific research community,” she said. “They will have a network of individuals who they can reach out to for letters of recommendation, for internship opportunities, for all of those other aspects that help a scientist grow in his or her career.”