People

Bridging the physical and social sciences

Patricia Romero Lankao, NCAR's Research Applications Laboratory

Photograph of Patricia Romero-LankaoPaty Romero Lankao (Photo by Carlye Calvin, UCAR.)

Patricia Romero Lankao is an NCAR scientist whose training isn't in meteorology, atmospheric chemistry, solar physics, or another branch of the physical sciences.

Rather, Paty (as her friends and colleagues call her) is a sociologist. She seeks to understand the human dimensions of environmental issues related to climate change, energy use, urban development, and water management.

"How can we study Earth's structure and functioning if we don't understand the main drivers of environmental change—humans?" she asks.

Paty is a scientist in the Climate Science and Applications Program within NCAR's Research Applications Laboratory. From 2006 to 2008 she was deputy director of the NCAR's Institute for the Study of Society and Environment (ISSE). She describes herself as a multidisciplinary sociologist, collaborating with physical scientists as well as other social scientists and serving as a liaison between fields as different as ecology and economics.

"I love to work with people from different disciplines to understand the way they think and the issues they care about," she says.

The role of cities in a warming world

Her current research focuses on the relationship between urban areas and climate change, exploring such questions as why some cities emit more greenhouse gases than others. For example, Stockholm, Sweden, and Austin, Texas, are comparable in population and relative wealth. Yet Austin residents emit about 20 tons of carbon per person per year, while Stockholm levels are closer to about 4 tons.

Bar graph in light and dark blueThe largest cities don't necessarily have the largest "carbon footprints," as illustrated by this graph of carbon dioxide emissions per person in 18 cities around the globe. (Illustration courtesy Patricia Romero Lankao, NCAR.)

The reason? As Paty explains, Stockholm relies heavily on hydrological power, while Austin uses mainly fossil fuels. Public transportation dominates densely-built Stockholm; private cars are the norm in sprawling Austin.

"These are examples of social dimensions, and this is what I love to understand," Paty says. To do so requires that she collaborate with climatologists, modelers, statisticians, and more.

Paty particularly enjoys brainstorming new ideas with colleagues across disciplines, and then implementing those ideas in her research and her writing. "I love when I'm able to sit down and write a paper, because it crystallizes an idea for me," she says.

Crossing cultural barriers

Bridging the divide between the physical and social sciences, though rewarding, is the most challenging part of Paty's job. "For us to understand environmental issues, we need to understand the physical part and combine it with the social dimensions," she says. "Some people don't get that, while others are on the same page. Here at NCAR, I've found good partners."

She also finds it a challenge to work in a foreign country. "It's not so much the cultural differences but rather the language," she says. "Sometimes I wish I could speak to everyone in Spanish, because that's my native language."

Paty grew up in Mexico City, in a poor neighborhood. As a high school student, she thought she might pursue a career in journalism. "I loved the idea of being able to learn about everything—science, art, politics," she recalls.

When she enrolled in the Autonomous National University of Mexico in the early 1980s, Paty became the first person in her family to attend college. Her intention was to pursue journalism—until she discovered sociology. "I really love to understand human nature and I thought sociology would be a good way to do so," she says. "I realized that I could be a journalist by being a sociologist, but not the other way around."

Flow chart in white and blue with pastel image of smoke stack in backgroundPaty uses this framework to illustrate the complex interaction between the environment and society when considering human vulnerability. Factors such as income, access to resources and services, and other stressors in the human environment have a real impact on how well or poorly local populations can cope with climate change and other stressors in the physical environment. (Illustration courtesy Patricia Romero Lankao, NCAR.)

Some of Paty's family members were taken aback by her pursuit of higher education, since her mother and older sisters had chosen more traditional paths as women.

But Paty was fortunate to build relationships with supportive professors.With their encouragement, she applied for a scholarship to pursue a master's degree in sociology. She studied German while working on the degree and won another scholarship, this time for language studies at the University of Bonn. When she enquired about earning a doctorate there as well, she was initially met with resistance.

While waiting for an answer from Bonn, which took a year, Paty enrolled as a doctoral student in Mexico City's Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) and began her coursework—only to receive a letter from Bonn saying she was accepted into that university's doctoral program and had even won a scholarship.

Paty found a resourceful solution to what could have been a frustrating situation: she earned a doctorate from each university. After finishing her coursework in Mexico, she moved to Bonn. She wrote two theses using the same theoretical framework, one for UAM on environmental policy and industry, and the other for Bonn on environmental policy and agriculture.

Paty's next step was back to UAM, where she worked as a professor in the department of social and political sciences, teaching courses on environmental issues and development.

Collaboration and questions

Although she enjoyed teaching, Paty felt isolated because most of her research collaborators were outside the university. She was first introduced to NCAR in 2003 as a participant in a three-week program called the Advanced Institute on Urbanization, Emissions, and the Global Carbon Cycle. She returned full time in 2006. "I wanted to work somewhere where I could have partners on the inside, and NCAR offered me that chance," she says.

In the future, Paty plans to refine her research on cities and climate change. She'd also like to delve further into water and development in urban areas, with an eye toward how climate change may stress vulnerable water supplies and how society could plan to respond.

"There are a lot of opportunities to develop new areas of research," she says. "The question is no longer whether climate change is happening and are humans driving it; the question to ask ourselves is, Why and how are humans driving climate change, what are the responses, and are they effective and efficient?"

Related Links

Patricia Romero Lankao's Home Page

by Nicole Gordon
April 2008, updated March 2010