Chief Operating Officer, Psychologist
Job Title: Climate Data Scientist, Astrophysicist
Company: Government Climate Science Research
Pronouns: She / Her / Hers / Herself
Quiz Results: Regulating, Innovating, Communicating, Educating
I didn't really know what I wanted to do when I was growing up. I worked for two years after I finished high school, doing some average jobs and some terrible jobs. I filmed wedding movies, I cleaned toilets, I worked the night shift at a petrol station, I did a bit of everything. I hated it, doing odd jobs was really unfulfilling. So after a couple of years of aimless wandering, I decided to go and do something, I needed a change.
I always liked stars, I spent a lot of time just reading about them. I thought I may as well put my time to good use and get something for my efforts. I went to uni to study for a Bachelor's Degree in Science. I wanted to focus specifically on astrophysics and meteorology, I wasn't really sure which one so I wanted to keep my options open. I really enjoyed astrophysics, it was what I needed at that time. I was very much in a place of figuring out what my purpose was, trying to find my place in the universe. Astrophysics was very appealing to me because it went to the absolute largest scale I could think of. I needed some answers, so I figured I'd try to understand the Universe and then maybe then I could figure out what my place is inside it. I didn't realize I was queer and trans until much later. It very much defines my journey through those years of trying to find myself and find a place for myself in this universe.
I followed the astrophysics track throughout undergrad, and got the opportunity to do an honours project working on open clusters. I really enjoyed doing my honours, focusing on something more specific than in undergrad. I was able to publish a paper based on the research I had done, it was really satisfying to get my name out there on something that was my own work. Something that was unique and on the edge of science.
I went on to do my PhD in astrophysics. About six months before I finished, I realised I was trans. I started transitioning at the same time that I was writing my thesis, bringing three and a half years of work together. That made for a very interesting time. I'm really fortunate that my wife is super supportive. She helped me come to the conclusion and she was there all the way through my questioning and self-discovery. And there was never any risk of losing what we have. In fact, it has only gotten better.
After finishing my PhD, I decided that a career in astrophysics was not what I wanted. I had gotten what I needed out of astrophysics, it had given me a bigger perspective and I felt like I understood the world around me in a fresh new way. I needed to move on and find a new path. I've always had a passion for environmental science, for climate science. I was raised quite religious, I was pretty much raised as a climate denier. There was a transition point somewhere after starting at university where I realised how terrible and toxic all of that anti science stuff was. I shifted, religiously, to atheism.
A job opportunity came up to work in climate science, as part of the climate modelling team. I jumped at it. My initial role was to help the team submit our simulations to an international project called CMIP (Coupled Model Intercomparison Project). CMIP6 is still ongoing, but the work has contributed to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report from the UN. Having my name on a global, UN official report is really fulfilling for me. Just to be one small part of this huge effort to make some real change in the world.
I did my PhD at Monash University. My supervisor turned out to be the absolute best supervisor for me. He was so encouraging, he pushed me when I needed to be pushed but was also gentle at the right times. We studied globular clusters, which contain really old stars. These stars have been around for 12 billion years and so they're really at the end of their lives. We noticed some peculiarities with their chemical abundances, some of them seemed to be skipping an entire phase of evolution. It was kind of a niche mystery that we stumbled upon.
I expected at the start of my PhD to just do an observational experiment. But as we got further into our observational data, we realized that there were just aspects of it that didn't make sense from a theoretical perspective. We had to take a break from our observations. I went away and spent six months learning how to run computer simulations of the stars we were looking at. We then compared that theoretical information to our observations to try and find where the mismatches were. The models that we ran performed exactly as we expected them to. Which meant they continued to disagree with our observations. The rest of my PhD was this balancing act between doing some more observations, running some more different stellar models. We tried everything that you can think of with these stellar models. We altered the physics, we altered assumptions about the atmospheres of the models, we played around with the chemical abundances of the stars, the ages of the stars, we tried every combination that we could kind of think of. We still had this disconnect with what we were observing and what we modelled.
It was a push and pull between theory and observation. You can't deny observations, but they are a bit of a black art. A lot of assumptions also go into observations. So you can't just take observations as the ultimate truth and then throw out your models and say, 'oh, well, they're not correct.' But you also can't do it the other way around. I think the summary of my thesis was that 'something's wrong, but we don't know what it is. It might be an observational issue and it might be theoretical. There is a disconnect.' There is something missing in our understanding of the stars and our understanding of the observations.
I'm a bit surprised I got the position in climate science. I wasn't a climate scientist, I didn't necessarily have all of the experience. I didn't tick all the boxes. But they liked me-I had the right transferable skills, I had the coding ability, I had some of the data knowledge, I have a PhD-so I knew research. I could think critically, communicate well and write papers. And they didn't need someone to do research, they needed someone to support researchers, that was really perfect for me. My role is to support the climate modelling team. We run ACCESS (Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator), which are really big climate models that have lots of different components. They use a thousand cores on a supercomputer and they run for many months at a time, simulating the entire globe from about 1850 to 2100.
My specific role, when I joined, was to help the team submit our simulations to an international project called CMIP (Coupled Model Intercomparison Project). All the different climate models around the world submit to this intercomparison project. Everyone runs the same experiment but with different models. This means that we can really get into the systematic biases between the different models and a good understanding of internal climate variability. CMIP-6 is still ongoing, but it has contributed to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report from the UN. Having my name on a global, UN official report is really fulfilling for me. Just to be like one small part of this huge effort to make some real change in the world.
My position is a bit of a jack of all trades. I do a lot of data management, data production and post-processing. There's a lot more that goes into research than just sitting on a computer, thinking and writing papers. These huge models are generating petabytes of data, hundreds of hundreds of terabytes of data. They require a lot of expertise to be able to run and manage. I'm starting to take on more leadership roles, helping to manage projects. I enjoy doing lots of different things, having hands in a whole lot of different research. I get a lot of satisfaction from supporting science and making sure that science happens efficiently.
What goes into the models themselves?
We run what are called coupled models. In a coupled model, you have an atmosphere, an ocean and some other additional components that are all modelled independently. For example, we have a land component that simulates crops, trees, soil, rivers. We've got a sea ice component, additional chemistry components within the atmospheric component. In the ocean, there are additional components that model things like plankton, processes that absorb carbon. The climate is such a complex system with so many interconnected processes that behave very differently. Sea ice acts very differently to the ocean and the atmosphere. You need to model them differently because there's different physics at play.
But you also need to couple them together so that you can simulate the entire climate as a whole. So, you have a coupler acting in the middle that takes inputs from one component and speaks to other components to make sure, for example, that the atmosphere and the ocean are doing the same thing at the oceans' surface. The connections between the two are in sync. The energy feeds from the atmosphere into the ocean, into the land components, into the sea ice. It becomes this highly complex system where you've got multiple models running in sync with each other.
There's a lot to be disheartened by in this field, the socio-political side of climate science. We talk about it a lot, it comes up a lot at work. I think every single climate scientist in the world struggles with this every single day. It's this sort of ever-present doom that sits on all of us. We're so acutely aware of how impending this kind of doom is if we don't do anything about it.
On a day-to-day level, it's really just about doing what I can. Doing my job, that is to facilitate science. Get the information out there and get the data processed. If the data is not processed, the papers won't be written. And if the papers aren't written, then our knowledge about the climate won't increase. If our knowledge about the climate doesn't increase, then we are going to be less equipped in the future to deal with climate change. And so it's really about those little incremental changes. Making sure that everything that I do in my job is working towards the goal of making the world a better place, contributing to our understanding of how we can avoid this calamity that's coming up.
In a broader context, what's really heartening about working in climate science is that there is a very strong spirit of collaboration. The knowledge of what is going on, how important climate science is, has really brought the community together. Everyone is very conscious of how much we need to work together to solve this problem. The IPCC reports that come out of the UN are plain evidence of that. Thousands of scientists, thousands of papers, are involved in this huge report that will have policy implications for decades. It just wouldn't be possible if there wasn't such a spirit of collaboration and a genuine care about the science that we do. The passion that my colleagues share, that's what gets me through.
Going through a gender transition has obviously changed a lot about my life as I experience it. That said, a lot of my passions and interests haven't really changed. One of my biggest interests is Sci-Fi (what a shocker for a nerdy astrophysicist to be a Sci-Fi fan!) I love everything from Star Trek to Mass Effect. I love reading; Asimov is one of my favourite authors. My wife and I even enjoy writing Sci-Fi ourselves. I draw spaceships in my free time-I think a lot about Sci-Fi. Studying a whole course and a PhD in astrophysics has given me a really well-rounded understanding of how the physical universe works. And so now I feel like I can apply that to my Sci-Fi knowledge. I can really pick apart Sci-Fi at just a level that I couldn't before. That's been a really strange and unintended benefit of doing the research that I've done.
My other main passion is heavy metal, I am a bass player and a vocalist in a melodic death metal band. I've been playing bass for over 10 years now. I also perform death growls in my band. I've been into heavy metal for a really long time. Heavy metal and music in general is something that helped me a lot when I finished high school. I was very confused, lost and incapable of processing my own emotions and understanding really anything about myself. Music, when it's the right type of music for who you are, it has this way of just digging deep inside you. Touching your emotions and bringing those emotions to the surface in a way that sometimes you didn't realize you needed.
It was just about that time when I finished high school and started uni, that I was really questioning everything in my life. I was very angry at everything I'd been told and taught growing up. Both about myself and about the world I lived in, the universe itself. I had a lot of internalized anger and rage, but I also had no way of expressing those emotions. So, when I discovered heavy metal, it gave me a way to feel and express the intense emotions inside of me in a productive, creative way that left me feeling way more calm afterwards. I still use heavy metal that way. I still chuck in some headphones and death growl along to my favourite band when I'm feeling frustrated or stressed. It's a huge cathartic release and an important part of my identity.