The Climate Scientist Who Played with Fire

Debra Kate Tillinger ’04 was a “creative force” devoted to climate education

By Tanisia Morris

Debra Tillinger

When it came to climate change education, Debra Kate Tillinger ’04 thought outside the classroom, writing that any place, from nightclubs to bathtubs, could be an ideal location for opening people’s minds.

“It’s wonderful to have this conversation in the classroom, but it needs to be everywhere else too,” she wrote in a blog post on her website. “And it can’t only be for people who did well in science class.”

While Tillinger, who died unexpectedly last year at age 40, taught physics, natural disasters, and oceanography at institutions such as Marymount Manhattan College and Touro College, she was also passionate about educating the broader public about how climate change was impacting oceans.

She raised awareness through a character she created called “Dr. Mermaid,” which led to her performing in fire shows and giving lectures in a mermaid-tail costume at informal spaces like the nightclub House of Yes and the Burning Man arts festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

“She wasn’t a typical scientist,” says her husband, Richard Miller. “She would go where no scientist dared to go.”

Arnold L. Gordon, Tillinger’s former faculty adviser at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, described her as unique and extraordinarily intelligent. “She reached out to the general public much more than anyone had,” he says. “She was an early advocate of that and was quite impactful.”

Tillinger, who grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, was drawn to math and science from an early age. Whenever her father, who had a Ph.D. in physics, would play math riddles and other guessing games with the family, she always seemed to get the answers right, recalls her sister, Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld. “It was all very intuitive to her,” she says.

The siblings were also exposed to the arts thanks to their mother, an early childhood and elementary school teacher with a background in theatre education. When Debra wasn’t memorizing soliloquies from Shakespeare and taking part in school plays, she was learning how to express herself through gymnastics.

At Barnard, Tillinger found a place where she could explore all her interests. She not only excelled in earth science but also explored her artistic side through a ballet class that would pique her curiosity in dance.

“She had so many eclectic interests, and whatever she put her mind to, she did it well,” says Tamara Wallenstein ’03, Tillinger’s childhood friend.

But earth science remained Tillinger’s primary focus. After graduating from Barnard, she went on to pursue a Ph.D. in ocean and climate physics at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. There, she participated in scientific research cruises in Alaska, the Philippines, Antarctica, and other regions that crossed the Pacific, Indian, and Southern Oceans, to say nothing of all seven continents. These expeditions amounted to more than 200 days at sea before she was awarded her degree in 2010.

Though she began teaching science to undergraduate students after graduating, she believed public science education was imperative to tackle the climate crisis.

In 2014, Tillinger became a climate change educator at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). She helped develop and teach the museum’s “Our Earth’s Future” series, which focused on communicating the science of climate change to adults. She later helped adapt the course for the global learning platform Coursera, where more than 35,000 people have taken it. Our Earth’s Future won a 2015 REVERE (Recognizing Valuable Educational Resources) Award from the Association of American Publishers in the “Beyond the Classroom” category, which recognizes engaging content for educating learners outside of formal education settings.

Tillinger continuously worked to make the museum’s online climate change offerings more accessible to all: She was revising the curriculum to improve areas in the series where students struggled up until her passing, according to her AMNH colleagues. She was also working to update the course with additional materials.

For Robert V. Steiner, director of online teacher education programs at AMNH, Tillinger will be remembered for her unparalleled commitment to making climate science education accessible to people from all walks of life — in the classroom and beyond.

"Debra was a creative force, a freethinker, a physicist who liked to play with fire in ways both figurative and literal,” he says. “There will be no replacement in this universe for her.”

A line of ducks follow Debra Tillinger on a grassy slope.
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