Climate postdocs build community, stretch comfort zones

Summer institute key to sharing research, creating bonds

October 5, 2016 | It's early in a four-day program in Steamboat Springs, and 15 postdoctoral fellows in climate science are being nudged out of their comfort zones.

The night before, eight of the recently minted Ph.D.s jousted in a debate over whether planning for climate adaptation makes it less likely that individuals and communities will take action to reduce carbon emissions.

Now, Renee Lertzman, a social scientist who writes and speaks about the intersection between psychology and the environment, is pressing the group with a probing question. 

"What are you doing getting on a flight (to the Steamboat conference), knowing what you know?" Lertzman challenges the participants. Then, she explains she expects a mix of emotional reactions to her comment: irritation, guilt, confusion, rationalization.

Lertzman focused on how people can come to terms with their conflicting emotions about climate change, have productive conversations with others, and take positive action.

The recent Steamboat program constituted the biennial summer institute for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship program and the PACE (Postdocs Applying Climate Expertise) fellowship program. Both programs are managed by UCAR's Visiting Scientist Programs (VSP) and funded by NOAA's Climate Program Office.

Climate postdoc group
Climate postdocs, university faculty and the UCAR Visiting Scientist Program staff at the recent Steamboat Springs summer institute. (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

VSP, with strong support from universities across the nation and federal agencies such as NASA and NOAA, recruits, hires, and provides administrative support to the postdocs. The scientists, who work on cutting-edge topics, are hosted in research and operational settings throughout the U.S. 

"The idea is to train that next generation of scientists — to bring a new disciplinary area into the forefront of science," said Meg Austin, VSP senior advisor.

Delving into research passions

Michael Hall, former director of the NOAA Climate Program Office, founded the NOAA postdoc fellowship program in 1990. The PACE program, which focuses on applied science, was added in 2007 in recognition of the increased demand for climate-related risk management and decision making.

Unlike project-focused postdoc positions, these postdocs have the luxury of spending up to two full years on a research passion. They know it's a plum gig.

"It's awesome," said Colin Averill, a postdoc at Boston University who is studying game theory and competition related to organic matter and its conversion to carbon dioxide. "You get to do what you're most fascinated by. That's just not something that's typically going to get you a postdoc."

Postdoc Navid Constantanou showing his research
Postdoc Navid Constantinou explaining his research related to the Southern Ocean's topography. (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

The summer institute, which this year included more than a dozen alumni and university faculty, brought the postdocs together at about the mid-point of their fellowships. The fellows presented their research, discussed topical issues, reflected — and also hiked and rafted. And, this year, investigated the emotional impacts of climate change, as in Lertzman's talk and brief role-play.

"Climate change is a profound challenge of our time and I think engaging the postdoc community to look through the filter of the psychological impacts of climate change was absolutely fascinating," said Hanne Mauriello, VSP director.

A community of engagement and networking

The program included a call to engage with each other — no computers or cell phones were allowed during the meetings. Engaged the participants were; they were animated in discussing their research and debating on such topical issues as whether data sets should be shared with the general public.

"I'm finding out about all the projects that are different from mine," said Navid Constantinou, who is researching the impact of the Southern Ocean's topography at the University of California, San Diego. "It's an amazing program, with some of the best young climate scientists gathering from all over the world, doing different things, but with a common purpose."

Xue Feng, a postdoc exploring plant drought risk at the University of California, Berkeley, was assigned to the team arguing that planning for climate change adaptation lowers the likelihood of action. One of her team's arguments was that an owner of a hybrid vehicle might feel complacent and be more likely to drive to work than use options that emit less carbon.

Postdoc Xue Feng participating in climate debate
Postdoc Xue Feng participating in a debate on whether climate change adaptation planning reduces the likelihood of people taking action. (©UCAR. Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

She acknowledged being somewhat uncomfortable. "I felt like I was taking a position that wasn't aligned with my own, or most of the others." Overall, she said it was an interesting experience.

By the end of the workshop, postdocs had offered to share their expertise to help others with their research.

Surveys have shown that most of the alumni of the two climate postdoc programs have stayed in the field, becoming university professors, scientists at federal labs — even chief scientists at private companies.

"We've found through the years that providing advanced training and helping to build a sense of community pays huge dividends," Austin said.

Jeff Smith, Science Writer and Public Information Officer