Postdoctoral Research Associate
At the start of this JISAO Staff Spotlight, I have to admit a personal failing: something deep within me prevents me from writing about myself in the third person. When I was asked to put one of these together, I was pointed to past Spotlights of my colleagues as examples to emulate, many of which use illeism. However, when faced with a blinking cursor on a blank page, I can’t quite bring myself to write stand-alone sentences like “Brian received his undergraduate degree in Aerospace Engineering and worked in that industry for five years,” or “Last summer he finished his PhD in climate science, and has been a postdoc at JISAO for just under one year” without getting stuck in a perspective-loop in which I’m both interviewer and interviewee. So I’m forced to write this thing in the first person, with apologies to any defenders of the LinkedIn-style bio. Another heads-up: this means I’m going to use “I” a lot, but we’ll get through this together, dear reader, you and I.
Well, how did I get here, to an Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean? As a kid – in particular, one with the skinniest arms in their class – my first interest in physics was practical: what angle above horizontal would allow me to throw the baseball all the way back to home plate? Or, being Canadian, how hard would I have to hit the puck (more often: worn tennis ball) to get it past the goalie? By the time I sat in my first high school physics class, calculating trajectories, forces, and torques felt familiar and intuitive. More than that, it was exciting to learn that the same principles that explain why topspin causes a tennis ball to arc so violently can be used to understand why airplanes fly.
Cue four more years of learning why airplanes fly, and five further years helping them do just that. And towards the end of that time, realizing that rather than using physics to design something, I’d rather study how they govern the behavior of the atmosphere and ocean.
In grad school and now at JISAO, my research focuses on the pattern of rainfall in the tropics, and how that pattern interacts with the atmosphere’s circulation and heating. For my thesis, I used a simplified atmosphere-ocean general circulation model to show that the tropical ocean circulation can prevent the peak rainfall rate from moving more than a couple degrees latitude off of the equator. At JISAO, I’ve taken a more observationally-motivated approach to studying tropical rainfall. With my collaborator Lauren Kuntz and UW faculty host David Battisti, I’m using satellite observations of rainfall events (storms) to compare their statistics – size, intensity, and vertical structure – to observations and reanalysis of the atmospheric environment in which they’re taking place. By studying how these relationships change from one ocean basin to another, from ocean to land, and from one season to another, we hope to better understand how the atmosphere’s vertical structure and circulation interact with clouds and precipitation.
My sense is that a near-universal experience for postdocs is one of rapid change – new research topic, new city, new friends. In this respect, as a JISAO postdoc, I’ve been fortunate. I’m given a lot of freedom over the direction of my research and have access to field-leading scientists to collaborate with; Seattle is beautiful and, in many ways, not that dissimilar from Cambridge; when I moved here, I already knew some folks and was quickly introduced to the wider, welcoming UW community. Another change has been living on the West Coast for the first time in my life. For the first time, I didn’t wear my warmest coat last winter; for the first time, August was cool enough to eat lunch outside without wishing I had brought a change of clothes. As I write this, in the middle of September, summer is coming to an end and I’m reminded that I’ll have to replace the raincoat last fall ravaged. Any suggestions?