On this page I reflect on what brought me to where I am, thus offering a bit of my personal story.
In one form or another, I was a formal student until age 33. Today I still go to school, only now as a research scientist and lecturer. Alas, education never stops, for the teacher is the ultimate student.
I completed a bachelors of science in chemical engineering from Louisiana State
University (1981-1986). At LSU in the 1980s, there were few
undergraduate degrees that could compete with chemical engineering for
the rigor, intensity, and depth of the degree requirements. Although
I enjoyed many aspects of engineering and chemistry, I was not
attracted to the idea of working for a large petro-chemical
corporation that pursued its profits often at the expense of the
environment. Road trips down the Mississippi River between Baton
Rouge and New Orleans taught me a great deal about the consequences of
that use of knowledge long before global warming and coastal erosion
were everyday experiences.
Today I appreciate that some remedies to environmental degradation come from smart engineering practices. However, as an undergraduate in the 1980s my views of chemical engineering were inconsistent with my views on sustainability and ecology. I thus chose to drop from my bucket list the idea of becoming a practicing engineer.
NU Applied Maths
After LSU, I completed a masters degree at the Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics department of Northwestern University (1986-1987). This year of course-work was an incredibly valuable and intense initiation into the methods and practices of theoretical science and engineering. Although I found life at NU enjoyable and fulfilling, my urge to dive into theoretical physics drove me to leave the applied maths program after a masters.
After NU, I returned to undergraduate school, this time in physics at the University of Washington (1987-1988). This time allowed me to explore the reality of my dream of doing physics. I also became exposed to the quest for beauty and unity that so deeply drives physicists, and which remains part of how I approach research and teaching. I chose UW for this transition year since I spent roughly seven years in the Puget Sound region of Washington during the 1970s, and my father still lives in Tacoma.
I completed a PhD in theoretical high energy physics at the University of Pennsylvania (1988-1993). My thesis concerned elements of cosmology and string theory. Notably, the only computer work I did was to use LaTeX for typesetting documents and an off-the-shelf differential equations package to generate a topological solution to a cosmic domain wall (basically a hyperbolic tangent). Otherwise, all of my thesis work was completed with a pencil, paper, and brain.
Towards the end of my time as a PhD student, I decided to switch to geosciences with a focus on oceanography. That decision led me to do a post-doc at Princeton in the geosciences department, working at GFDL under the mentorship of Kirk Bryan. This 2+ years as a post-doc was both a time for research and a time for taking courses on topics that I had little exposure to while studying in a physics department: fluid mechanics, atmospheric and oceanic dynamics, climate dynamics. I got the hang of it after a while, sufficient to land a job as a federal scientist at GFDL starting spring 1996. That transition also saw me getting married (now with one son, born 2006) and deciding to settle down in Princeton for the long haul.
My unusually diverse (perhaps random!) education resulted from an early fascination with the natural world, and the ability of science, engineering, and maths to help understand and describe the world. More practically, it resulted from the difficulty I had choosing a particular intellectual path. Even so, one thing I appreciated quite early on was the relative freedom offered to the academic and the researcher. I could ask for nothing more fulfilling and compelling than to be paid to learn from great minds, to deepen understanding through research, and to teach the next generation of students.
About my Style
My "paper and pencil" experience as a PhD student is in apparent
contrast to much of my ongoing research in which computer simulations
play a central role. However, that perspective is not the full story.
Even though I have contributed research and development energies to
numerical codes and big climate models, I firmly maintain the
concepts, tools, and prejudices engendered from studies of
theoretical/mathematical physics, each of which guide my research and
mentoring activities. Quite simply, computer simulations are
constrained by the quality of human brains used to build models and
analyze their output: As Jerry Mahlman emphasized when he hired me,
software and hardware are of little use for science without brainware.
What drew me to theoretical sciences, in particular to physics, was a growing interest in general concepts and ideas rather than to particular solutions and technology. Being able to solve an equation is important, and my training in applied maths, engineering, and numerical methods have certainly taught me many tricks for doing so. But what attracts me the most to physics is the quest for fundamental understanding of how Nature works, with that understanding generally transcending the details of a particular solution.
Why the Ocean?
On or around 1990, Jerry Mahlman, then director of GFDL, gave a talk
at UPenn physics concerning the science of climate warming. I recall
putting his name on a note in my desk after the talk, along with
"interesting stuff". I then returned to the matters at hand, which
involved completing my PhD and getting a post-doc.
Nearing the end of my PhD work in early 1993, I did plenty of "naval gazing" to decide my next step in life. Reflection led me to realize that my skills were both broad and deep, and that my passions drew me to use those skills to help understand the natural world that is directly experienced, including the ocean and atmosphere. I was inspired to connect with Dr. Mahlman who generously invited me to visit GFDL to see if a "physics re-tread" could bring something to his wonderful lab.
I visited GFDL a handfull of times during the spring of 1993, meeting GFDL giants like Suki Manabe, Isaac Held, Kiku Miyakoda, Kurihara, Isidoro Orlanski, and Kirk Bryan. I was particularly attracted to the idea of working with Kirk Bryan, the father of numerical oceanography. Fortunately, we developed a chemistry and he supported my application to do a post-doc with him starting in September 1993. Before the post-doc officially started, and only two weeks after my PhD defense on cosmic domain walls and time machines, Kirk put me on a plane to Nova Scotia (using his personal funds!) to join a research cruise to the Labrador Sea on a Canadien research vessel (The Hudson). The chief scientist was John Lazier and Peter Rhines was the ship's intellectual guru. That was indeed a rapid initiation into oceanography. I was definitely hooked!
I have often pondered if it was happenstance or destiny for me to transition from theoretical physics to oceanography. Who knows? One reason perhaps originates from many years living at or near the seashore or near lakes and rivers. My father was in the air force, so my family moved every three to four years while growing up: Texas, Louisiana, Hawaii, California, Washington State, and the Mississippi Coast. Bodies of water, and in particular the ocean, became part of my DNA. From this perspective is seems natural that my heart would lead my head to do research in ocean science.
My gratitude for the freedom offered by research and teaching aligns
with my studies and practices of meditation since 1982. Meditation
offers a complement to my obsessive quest for an objective and
scientific understanding of nature. It does so by providing a system
to organize, observe, and appreciate subjective experiences without
the mind chatter of judgement and achievement. Meditation fosters an
awareness of the way things are rather than the way we think they are.
One may imagine the stillness realized via meditation to bring about an absence of awareness or perception. My experience is quite the opposite. As the mind quiets and the distance between thoughts expands, awareness opens to render a direct experience of nature absent a patina engendered by the intellect, emotions, and thoughts. Such provides a clear cultivation of understanding and intuition. For me, a practical result is that meditation provides a spark for insights and creativity, and it instills a great deal of patience, persistence, humility, gratitude, and compassion.