Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Kate Marvel, Physicist and Climate Scientist

Kate Marvel hated science and math in high school. Then she took an astronomy for non-majors class at UC Berkeley, fell in love with the subject and boldly pursued it. Here Kate describes how she met the challenges faced by a former math/science-hater turned Physics and Astronomy double major. We follow her through the prestigious Cambridge Part III Mathematics program, teaching in Africa, a PhD in superstring cosmology, and her transition to climate science. We will discuss her work in climate science in a subsequent post. 

Dr. Marvel works at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, NY and blogs at Kate Has Things To Say. All views expressed here are her own. 

I mentioned on Twitter and Facebook that I was looking for someone with a physics degree, working in climate science, and got a lot of suggestions. Why do you think there are so many of you?

When you do the physics degree, you have numerical skills, you have problem solving skills, and I think that just makes you really flexible. And for a long time there it was hard to study climate science, in particular, in graduate school. You had to do meteorology, or some schools had atmospheric science departments, but it wasn’t a big thing, and so a lot of people in the field just kind of drifted in from physics. But there’s a huge overlap between the skill sets, I think.

 “When you do the physics degree, you have numerical skills, you have problem solving skills, and I think that just makes you really flexible.”

Backing up some, what drew you into physics in the first place?

I feel like I’m a little weird in that respect; a little weird in a lot of respects. But I hated science and math when I was in high school. I was like, “This is so boring; I’m never going to use it; I can’t wait to not ever do it again.” And I still do not get excited about inclined planes. I feel like the way it was taught just kind of didn’t resonate with me and I was just like, “I cannot wait to not do this anymore.”
So I was going to be an actress. I was going to be a movie star, obviously, because that’s a great career choice. And I went to Berkeley and I took just Astro 10, Astro for non-majors, in my first semester. And I was like, "This is so cool. This is so amazing. And the only reason I’m not majoring in this is because I’m scared of math and I’m scared of physics. But if I can get over that fear, I can learn all this amazing stuff.” It was really scary, but I decided to do it. I was just like, “Well, I don’t really know what I want to do with my life, like probably being a movie star’s just not going to work out, so I’ll just see where this leads me.”

Well that’s really interesting. I was interested in science really early on, and then in second grade when science started being taught in school I became totally disinterested.

It’s such a shame, isn’t it?

Yes! How was that for you then? All of a sudden you’ve got to take calculus – how was it going into a physics class, with other people majoring in physics?

I mean, it was hard. I feel like there were a lot of people there who always knew that they wanted to do technical things – wanted to be engineers or physicists. And they just knew more than I did, and I was really intimidated. And I was like, “I’m never going to catch up.” But then I realized that I didn’t care. I didn’t care that I was the worst person in the class because I wanted to know this stuff.
I didn’t learn physics quickly, but I learned how to take exams quickly. I kind of learned that, okay, there’s only so many problems that show up on the exam, and if you just get good at pattern recognition, then you can kind of fake it. And so I faked it for a while. And then it finally started to sink in. I finally started to learn stuff. But no, it was rough. It was hard. I felt really out of place. I felt like I didn’t belong. But then I found a group of other people who also felt out of place, and that was really helpful.

"I didn’t care that I was the worst person in the class because I wanted to know this stuff."

Yeah, I was just going to ask about what resources you found to help with that. So just a group of others?

Yeah. So I double majored in the end, in Astronomy and Physics, and Berkeley’s just this giant school, but the Astronomy major is really small, and so it’s really tight-knit. And there’s this amazing lab class where they basically just throw you in a lab, with all this old telescope equipment, and tell you like, “Prove that the galaxy is a spiral,” and you have to teach yourself electronics; you have to teach yourself – I didn’t know how to program – you have to teach yourself programming – and it’s so much work but it’s so amazing, and you get so much help from the TA’s and the professors. And all the famous professors know you because you’re in the department all the time, because you’re working so hard. And that that was just an amazing educational experience, I think. I’m super grateful for that.

All that time in astronomy, and then you went to do very theoretical work at Cambridge.

Yeah. So again, I kind of didn’t know what I wanted to do after college but I applied for this scholarship never thinking I would get it and I guess they made the questionable decision to give it to me. So I had a scholarship to go to Cambridge for a year to do this crazy thing called Part III in Mathematics, which is basically like a really intense master’s program. And so you take classes, whatever you want, but I chose quantum field theory and general relativity and then you just take a bunch of exams at the very end. And so that was super intense but I had fun; I liked it; I was kind of burned out by the end of it, but I learned a lot, I think.

So you did that master’s degree in Part III, and then onto a PhD in physics?


Can you tell me more about that transition?

So after Part III I was kind of burned out, and I went to South Africa for a year to this place called the African Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). So I taught there for a year, which was unbelievable. I met the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. The students there, just incredible. I guess it makes sense. You get the smartest people on literally an entire continent all in the same building, and it’s phenomenal. So I was there for a year, and then – there’s a bit of a pattern – didn’t really know what I wanted to do. And then a professor at Cambridge I knew said, “I’ve got some funding. You can come back to Cambridge and do a PhD with me." So I did. And I think UK PhDs have the advantage that they’re done in only about three years. So that was an appeal as well.

I also didn’t 100% know what I wanted to do. I kind of suspected that I didn’t want to go the typical academic, theoretical physics route, but I did kind of feel like, at the very least, “I’ll learn a lot, I’ll get great mathematical skills, and there are worse ways to spend three years and you can call yourself ‘doctor’ afterwards.”

So how were those three years for you?

There were ups and downs, for sure. I struggled a lot, because I think in the UK it’s very much – you’re just kind of told, “Go away for three years and come back when you’ve figured something out.” And I think everybody’s experience varies, like some people get more mentorship; some people don’t, but I did kind of struggle a little bit. But I met great friends, and I feel like I did learn a lot. But there were definitely ups and downs. I wouldn’t say it was easy by any stretch of the imagination.

And then how did you make the switch into climate science? Were there other things you were considering as well?

So I was really lucky and I got a postdoc at Stanford in the Center for International Security and Cooperation, which has this great science fellowship program. And they basically said, “You can do whatever you want, as long as you’re doing something which is relating science and policy.” And that was just great for me. So I did a little bit of work on mathematical modeling of the electricity grid. So I published a physics paper on applying random matrix theory to understanding the network of the grid. And I did a little bit of work on nuclear energy; basically trying to figure out “How should I feel about nuclear energy? Is it a net good? Or is it a net bad?”

I did a little bit of work on that and then I realized – I was there for three years – and I realized in my third year that I really like doing science, I really like doing physics, and I’m just really interested in how the Earth works. I think of all the places in the universe, this is my favorite. And I just got really interested in it. So I started just talking to people. I was on the Stanford campus, just reaching out to people, and saying like “Hey, I don’t know anything, but can I come pick your brain?” And some people never replied, and some people said “No, I’m busy,” but a really large number of people said “No, come talk to me.”

So just by making contact, I ended up meeting somebody who works at the Carnegie Institute, which is an independent research center, but it’s on the Stanford campus. I ended up talking him into giving me a try, letting me be a postdoc for a little bit. And in that job, it was learning on the feet, learning how to use a climate model, learning how to modify it, and we ended up writing this crazy paper on basically how many wind turbines can you put in the atmosphere, before you either run out of wind or seriously alter the atmospheric circulation And the answer turned out to be, a lot. You go to crazy town here. But it’s a really interesting way to kind of look at the parameters of the atmospheric circulation. And that was just an amazing experience because I learned how to use a climate model and I learned the basics of atmospheric dynamics, and I got this very high-profile paper out of it. So that was amazing.

“I realized in my third year that I really like doing science, I really like doing physics, and I’m just really interested in how the Earth works. I think of all the places in the universe, this is my favorite. And I just got really interested in it.”

Can you back up a little bit? You said you were really lucky to get the postdoc at Stanford. How did that happen? 

In graduate school, I got really involved with an organization called Pugwash, which is kind of a silly name, but it’s actually a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization. During the Cold War, they did a lot of bilateral negotiations between scientists in the US and in the Eastern Bloc. And now it’s kind of this general science and society organization devoted to trying to do good things through science. And so I ran the Cambridge chapter of that and I got to go to a couple of conferences and met people there. And so I met people who worked at Stanford through these conferences, which was great, yeah.

Basically, through an extracurricular activity that you really cared about.


Then you got this opportunity at the Carnegie Institute. You were actually working, you were learning how to use a climate model. Where did you go from there?

I went from there to Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which has a really good climate group and I did a postdoc there. So I was at Carnegie for like two months before this opportunity came up at Livermore. I’m still really blown away by how much help and mentoring and advice I got through the whole process. I showed up at Carnegie and then at Livermore being kind of clueless. But people were just so patient and really generous with their time. I’m incredibly grateful for that.

But at Livermore there’s this place called the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison, which I don’t think is a word, but basically it’s a bit of a clearinghouse. So there are about thirty different independent climate modeling groups in the world, and in order to see the similarities and differences they all have to run the same set of experiments, so they all have to run like – “Okay, run your model with no external forcing whatsoever. Like no greenhouse gasses, no volcanoes, nothing. And then, okay, everybody run your model where you all of a sudden abruptly quadruple carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” And so everybody has to do these same sets of experiments, and then send all of their results to the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison at Livermore. And so it’s just kind of like being in a playground because you have all of these data to play with. And there are so many interesting questions you can ask. So yeah, that was great.

You said something in the beginning about the value of your physics degree and your training in physics. You also taught at AIMS for a year. Do you want to add anything now about the value of that training for what you’re doing now?

I personally think it was super-valuable. I’m really grateful that I kind of learned how to approach problems in kind of a systematic mathematical way. I’m really glad I have those skills. I never took a course on programming and I really wish I had, but at AIMS I had to teach programming and there’s nothing that makes you learn faster than having to teach. So I’ve had quite a few people talk to me about wanting to make the switch from physics into climate science, and I always say, “That’s the number one thing you need, on top of what you already have: solid programming skills.” And I don’t think I would have had those if I hadn’t taught.