The Value of a Fresh Perspective in Climate Science
I am Brazilian, and I actually didn’t study atmospheric sciences, ever! I studied physics, and I come from a family with a lot of engineers, so that’s what people tried to steer me to. But I was not interested in anything very practical, because I’m not a practical person.
So I went to study theoretical physics, and then I went to Germany to do a Ph.D. in theoretical plasma physics, and I ended up living in Germany for six and a half years. I did my Ph.D. there, did the postdoc there, and then I went back to Brazil and I was a professor in physics in Brazil for a few years.
But when I was in Germany, I met my husband, who is American. So yes, I went to Germany and married an American! And when we were in Brazil we decided we wanted to come live in the U.S. So he actually got a job at Columbia, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. At that point, the IRI—which is the International Research Institute for Climate and Society—was starting, and they gave me a chance to start in a new field. So I started at the IRI and tried to figure out what I was going to do. Because here I was, this physicist trying to work in climate, which I didn’t know anything about! But I did have a lot of background that could help: my knowledge of fluids, my knowledge of programming.
So someone said, ‘Oh, we started looking at this thing of hurricanes and climate.’ And at that point, in 2000, there were very few people working on that area. And that’s how I started. I worked at the IRI until 2007, and then I changed inside Columbia to Lamont at the Ocean and Climate Physics Division, and that’s where I have been since then, and then I became a Lamont research professor. So I have been focused on climate and hurricanes since then.
People always ask me, ‘So, when you were growing up, were you fascinated with hurricanes?’ I’m like, ‘Uh, actually, no, because I’m from Brazil, and basically there are no hurricanes in Brazil!’ And I didn’t study atmospheric science or meteorology, so I basically learned on the job—while I was raising two kids and doing research. Not that I was not interested; I didn’t know about it!
It was not my field, but once I started learning about hurricanes and typhoons, it’s an absolutely fascinating area, and we have such a big impact throughout the world. It’s such an important thing. Coming from outside gave me opportunities, because I assumed people knew things, but then I learned they didn’t.