Canton-Based NASA Scientist Credits Community
By Rebecca Johnston, Canton Resident
With his roots deep in the predominately Black Pea Ridge-Nineteen community, Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, the grandson of the man who founded the North Canton Volunteer Fire Station, has grown up to be an international expert in weather and climate and a distinguished professor of geography and atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia.
Marshall grew up in Canton and attended North Canton Elementary School and Cherokee High School before going on to receive his bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees in physical meteorology from Florida State University. He was the first African American to receive a PhD in meteorology from that university.
He spent twelve years as a research meteorologist at NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center and was deputy project scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, a multinational space mission that launched in 2014.
The Canton native has testified before Congress on critical climate change issues, and in 2004 President Bush honored him at the White House with the Presidential Early Career Award for pioneering scientific research in weather and climate science.
In addition to teaching, nowadays Marshall hosts The Weather Channel’s award-winning talk show Weather Geeks, writes for Forbes Magazine, and stays involved in a variety of other endeavors.
No matter how far life has taken Marshall, he still values his roots. “The Pea Ridge-Nineteen part of Canton shaped who I am in many ways. It is a modest community that valued relationships, afternoons on front porches, faith, and community. This ‘marinade’ provided me with a valuable perspective on how to treat people, communicate with them, and listen, no matter what level of education, affluence, or background a person has achieved,” Marshall says.
The distinguished scientist gives most of the credit for his success to his mother, Frankie Shepherd, a teacher at North Canton Elementary in the old mill village and later principal at the Ralph Bunche school in the Pea Ridge-Nineteen community. “As a single parent my mother raised me and instilled in me the importance of education, discipline, and respect. She also somehow managed to make sure I had everything I needed, and she participated in every activity I wanted to do,” he remembers.
Other family members were important in his upbringing as well. “My grandfather, Charlie Ferguson, and uncle, Tony Ferguson, also were mentors without me even realizing it, by way of the pioneering things they were doing within the North Canton and Canton communities, even at a time when race was still a barrier in the minds of some people. Those men pushed through, and that lesson stayed with me,” Marshall says.
The guidance of Lillie Mae Nash, his sixth grade science teacher at North Canton Elementary school, is still strongly imprinted on his mind as well. “I am appreciative of all of my teachers in Cherokee County and my family too. I didn’t understand it then, but those days with family on Willie’s or RiRi’s porch or Otis’s Barber Shop were important,” Marshall recalls.
As a child Marshall developed a deep interest in entomology, the study of insects, but after being stung while catching bees in his yard, he learned that he was highly allergic to bee stings and changed his course. “I shifted my interests to weather and created a science project titled Can a Sixth Grader Predict the Weather? It did well at science fairs, and I was bitten by the weather bug from that point on—pun intended,” he says. His sixth-grade science project experience is documented in a how-to book for junior meteorologists titled Dr. Fred’s Weather Watch, which he cowrote with Fred Bortz.
Marshall had no interest in being a forecaster or appearing on TV, which is what most people think of when they hear the term meteorologist. “When I was president of the American Meteorological Society, our data revealed that only about 8 to 10 percent of meteorologists work in television. Most do other things. I was always more interested in the ‘how and why’ of weather, so I pursued a career in research meteorology,” Marshall explains. “I spent twelve years at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and am now a professor and researcher at the University of Georgia. I am getting paid to do what I have loved to do since sixth grade.”
The scientist has also written The Race Awakening of 2020: A Six-Step Guide for Moving Forward. He says, “I wrote about a colleague at the University of Georgia who said I was a world-class and well-known scientist, yet she was amazed at how I interacted with everyone from ivory-tower scholars to the custodial staff in exactly the same way. That ability came from the Pea Ridge-Nineteen community,” he says.
While he has been honored at the White House and received some of the highest awards in his field, his family is the most important to him. “My wife, Ayana, and my kids, Anderson and Arissa, are the most important aspect of my career. COVID-19 has made me further realize how much I cherish them. Career is a means to an end for them, but in my case, my career is something I absolutely love. It doesn’t feel like work, so I never say, ‘Thank God it’s Friday.’”
The 2020 recipient of the Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Marshall is also the 2019 recipient of the AGU Climate Communication Prize and the 2018 recipient of the prestigious AMS Helmut Landsberg Award for pioneering and significant work in urban climate.
In 2017 he was honored with the AMS Brooks Award, a high honor in the field of meteorology. Ted Turner and his Captain Planet Foundation honored the local meteorologist in 2014 with its Protector of the Earth Award. Prior recipients include Erin Brockovich and former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
No matter how much Marshall has achieved, he credits his mother and teachers for taking him there. “The influences of my mother and the outstanding education from teachers at North Canton Elementary and Cherokee High School were critical. We didn’t have the fancy awards and designations for our schools back then, but they adequately prepared me for Florida State University, NASA, and the University of Georgia.”