After receiving his master’s degree from the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at the Graduate School of Science, Atsushi Goto, a forecaster at the Japan Meteorological Agency, began building a career merging climate with international development. As a climate specialist, he wants to raise the standard of living in both developing and developed countries and aims to use science to improve people’s lives and the future, which he calls “science to service”. So, what exactly led him to choose that career?
A childhood of drawing daily weather maps
Goto’s interest in climate began quite early in life, from around the final years of elementary school.
“My mother often hiked in the mountains. When I was in elementary school, she told me that there were no newspapers or televisions there, so she would listen to the radio to make a weather map to predict the weather for the following day. After she told me this, I coincidentally had a lesson at school where I had to draw a weather map, and that’s how it all began. Once I started drawing weather maps, it became a habit and every day from then until the end of junior high school, I listened to weather reports on the radio and drew weather maps.”
This boy who loved weather maps would later enroll in the Natural Sciences I stream at the University of Tokyo before moving on to the Department of Earth and Planetary Physics in the Faculty of Science, and then getting his master’s degree from the Graduate School of Science’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science.
“I originally wanted to become an astronomer, but astronomy can be a conceptual and abstract discipline at times. Earth and planetary physics studies phenomena occurring before your eyes, which feels tangible. This drew me into the field and changed my mind about what I wanted to do.”
By the time Goto was in the last years of his undergraduate studies, he still hadn’t fully decided on which lab to join for graduate school. However, after exploring different fields in earth and planetary physics, he finally chose a lab that focused on climate research.
“When I was an undergraduate student, I studied not only climate but also the solar system, such as doing experiments and attending seminars on meteorites. I learned a wide range of topics but what captivated me the most was climate.”
When Goto was in the master’s program, he researched the interactions between the oceans and atmosphere, namely the seas and skies. He also participated in a joint U.S.-Japan observational voyage for one month, which studied the atmosphere by launching balloons equipped with sensors from a research ship.
Working for the Japan Meteorological Agency after graduating with a master’s degree
“When I was in graduate school, I wasn’t confident that I could have a career in research. There is no guarantee that you can continue being a researcher after finishing a doctoral degree. Also, rather than researching only one thing in depth, I like to think broadly using a range of knowledge and ponder what would happen if this knowledge were combined, so I decided to look for employment instead of continuing onto the doctoral program. I think I didn’t have the courage to turn down the idea of working in the public sector after passing a civil-service examination when I was a first-year master’s student.”
Goto wanted a job that made the most use of earth and planetary science. He applied to the Ministry of the Environment, which is in charge of global warming countermeasures; the Japan Meteorological Agency, which focuses on the earth itself, such as weather reports or earthquakes; and MEXT, which runs research projects that contribute to the advancement of earth science. In the end, he was hired by the Japan Meteorological Agency.
It was like he had returned to doing what he had loved as a child — drawing weather maps.
From science to serve as a scientific officer at the World Meteorological Organization
After joining the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), Goto was assigned to the Climate Prediction Division and monitored the climate system and analyzed factors behind extreme weather events for two years. He then moved to the Office of International Affairs, which is where he would have an epoch-making experience that would significantly influence his career and turn his interest towards international operations.
"In preparation for a presentation at a world conference, scheduled for September 2009, JMA hosted a large meeting about climate in July 2009 called the Tokyo Climate Conference, where they gathered statements from participants on Asia’s initiatives and challenges. This was the first step that led to my temporary transfer to the World Meteorological Organization.”
After three years in the International Office, Goto was transferred to the Ministry of the Environment in 2012. There he was in charge of assessing the impact of global warming as well as promoting research using Ibuki, a satellite that measures carbon dioxide concentration from space, and a follow-up project to develop the next generation of satellites. The following year, he returned to JMA and did work on issuing alarms and advisories for high tides or tidal waves. He also returned to the Climate Prediction Division and oversaw technical support to meteorological bureaus, which are the equivalent of JMA in Southeast Asian countries.
While working in international activities, Goto was overseeing a wide range of work and using the knowledge and skills he had acquired in university, which led him to start thinking about working at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations. When that thought became stronger with each passing workday, he decided to talk to his supervisor at the time about transferring to the United Nations. His supervisor was supportive, telling him to do his best and giving him the push he needed.
In 2018, Goto’s desire to transfer to WMO came to fruition.
At WMO in Geneva, Switzerland, Goto’s responsibilities included creating reports about climate and devising a universal guideline for climate-related information. The transfer was only for one year, but Goto is still thinking about returning to work on “science to service” — using science to improve quality of life.
“I specialize in climate, so I believe I can improve living conditions by finding ways to better respond to both changes in climate and variability. For instance, I want to coordinate activities to steadily accumulate and then arrange climate data. Such activities are necessary to make more reliable forecasts or make proposals on how to handle climate change that is already happening. International organizations are the bridge between science and service as they consist of people from various backgrounds. Since I studied earth and planetary science up until graduate school and now I work at JMA, I want to put my scientific expertise to use at WMO.”
Making the path easier for others rather than carving a path never walked before
After returning to Japan, Goto was once again assigned to the Climate Prediction Division where he worked on drafting plans for information related to climate change.
“A unique feature in my department is that I manage the Advisory Panel on Extreme Climate Events, which consists of an expert panel of external researchers. When an extreme weather event occurs, the Panel has a short period of less than a month to intensively work on analyses, news reports and outreach. The chairman of the Panel is my academic advisor from graduate school, and I’m doing my best so that he doesn’t think my skills have dulled or that I’m not studying hard enough.” Goto smiles as he recalls his current interactions with his then-academic advisor and their connection to the Graduate School of Science.
Having been consistently involved with climate while working in various fields, Goto views his career as the following.
“I’ve had many different experiences but I believe I have built my career on climate and international activities. It’s difficult for me to persistently continue doing only one thing like research. Rather than asking my own questions and forging a path that has never been walked before, I was better suited for a career in which I could make a path already taken easier for others to follow.”
The world has a wealth of options
Although different from the image people may have of a researcher who strengthens an established path, Goto is making full use of what he learned in graduate school to steadily make paths in various fields easier for others to follow. He had been torn about whether to become a researcher or find employment and then ultimately found a job where he could utilize his academic skills, so I asked him to give a message to undergraduate and graduate students who may be experiencing the same concerns.
“Whether you are aiming for a research position or one in industry, I hope you will gain a specialization in undergraduate or graduate school that you can be proud of. University is an environment where you can take the time to do this, so please use this time wisely.”
So how can you gain a wide range of experiences and have a wealth of choices while maintaining your expertise like Goto?
“I think your perspective will broaden and you will feel at ease a little once you realize that you don’t have to follow the path you initially chose forever. I thought I was going to be an astronomer when I started university, and I’m ashamed to admit this but up until I started working, I didn’t even know JMA had international operations. When I was working in the Office of International Affairs at JMA, I never thought that I would end up working at WMO. The options in the world are far more plentiful than I had imagined as a student. If you want to experience the plethora of options the world has to offer, all you have to do is choose one. Choose one and take a stance. By choosing, you can take one step forward in the world and then see more before you. This may seem paradoxical but first choose a path and see. And above all, don’t ever feel restricted by the path you have chosen.”
※Year of interview:2022
Interview and text: Naoto Horibe
Photography: Junichi Kaizuka