Women's History Month: A conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Barnes

  • 26 March 2021

In honor of Women's History Month, NOAA is highlighting a few of its female scientists and funded researchers who are making significant strides in the climate sciences and other science fields. The following interview is with Dr. Elizabeth Barnes, Associate Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University. Her research is funded in part by the NOAA Climate Program Office’s Modeling, Analysis, Predictions, and Projections (MAPP) Program. She focuses on climate variability and change, and how data science can help improve our understanding.

Dr. Elizabeth Barnes

When did you first become interested in science and, later, atmospheric science?

My parents are civil engineers and my dad is a professor at the University of Minnesota, so I guess you could say science flows through my blood. The first science discussion I recall was when I was about 5 years old and my dad told me about erosion. I couldn’t even pronounce it. I still remember that conversation so clearly, and it was an important one for me. When I was 12, I watched the movie Contact (1997) with Jodie Foster, and I knew I wanted to be her. I asked my dad what job title she had and he said astrophysicist. So I decided then and there that I was going to do that when I grew up.

So, I went to college to be an astrophysicist and studied neutrinos—nearly massless, neutral particles produced from events like exploding stars. It wasn't until two years before I graduated that there was a fire with an instrument we were using. The fire was a really big deal because if the instrument was lost, the one big science question we were tackling could not be answered. I realized that I didn’t want to rely on one instrument to answer only one question at a time—I wanted to ask different questions every day! Because of this, I went around and asked a lot of people at the University of Minnesota, “Would you hire a physicist who wanted to go to grad school and work with you?” And I got a lot of “yes” responses, which was surprising to me. I hadn’t realized that physics would be such a strong foundation for so many other scientific disciplines. Then I really started thinking about what I wanted to study, and that’s when I realized that the Earth was one of the most complicated systems I could think of—I would never run out of questions to ask! 

    

 Young Dr. Barnes with her father, Professor Randal Barnes.  

You spent a year as a NOAA Climate & Global Change Postdoctoral Fellow at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (This postdoc program normally runs two years) . How did your experience working at the Observatory shape your interests?

I knew that the way to get the fellowship was for them to see a student as a postdoc who wanted to venture to new lands. I had to do a lot of deep thinking about where I wanted to go. In the end, I really wanted to work at the intersection between two fields--atmospheric dynamics and atmospheric chemistry. My time as a postdoc was really when I realized just how important methods are to the final scientific result. I worked on multiple projects (with wonderful collaborators and mentors I might add!) where the methods turned out to be absolutely critical, rather than just plug-and-chug. 

While I don’t really work at the intersection of atmospheric dynamics and chemistry much these days, this postdoc really allowed me to think broadly about working across subdisciplines, and how there is a place for scientists who can intelligently talk about both those fields. In many ways, that is the role I am playing now—except this time with climate dynamics and data science. 

Your research is largely focused on climate variability and change and the data analysis tools used to understand it. Is there a certain topic of interest within the realm of atmospheric science that interests most?

Yes, there is. It is the tools themselves. All of the research that I do has interest in that realm. No matter what it is that I’m working on, I get attracted to how it is that we’re quantifying the data and why we are quantifying it that way. If we get a different answer by using a slightly different metric, instead of throwing out the result, let’s try to understand why—maybe it will tell us something new.

As you mentioned, a lot of your work now at Colorado State University focuses on climate variability and machine learning. What do you enjoy most about working in this space?

The students. No question. I’m a professor because I love to be a mentor, a teacher, and a scientist. I get to work with such an amazing group of people—both my colleagues and my group. If my answer wasn’t the students, maybe I’d be elsewhere and have a different position where I could just nerd out about data science alone. But I’m having so much fun throwing around ideas with this group of graduate students, postdocs, and research scientists. It’s especially fun in this realm of climate and data science right now, where everything is so new and exciting. 

 

 Dr. Elizabeth Barnes with her research group

You’ve accomplished a lot in your career. Did you have any significant mentors?

My dad. He has been there from the beginning really, nurturing my love of science and pushing me to hold myself to the highest standards. My mom is also a superstar (after raising four kids at home she now owns an editing business), so I’ve had a lot of guidance and mentorship just from my parents. I’m so very fortunate to have this.

  
 Dr. Barnes (far left) with her three siblings, mom, and grandmother, jumping Pacific waves off the West coast. 

What advice would you give to your younger self or to a woman just starting out in her career?

For a long time I was trying to do science the way everyone else has done science in the past. You know, if you want to call yourself an atmospheric dynamicist, you have to do dynamics a certain way and make these kinds of plots and write those kinds of papers. Finally, in the last few years, I have taken a deep breath and realized that I can do science that way but it’s not the best way that I can contribute to society and to the field. 

So my advice to my younger self is to embrace what it is that I’m good at earlier and be okay with the fact that it’s different than how other people do science—but that it doesn’t make it any less useful or important. Going back to the data science side, there aren’t a lot of people in our field, until recently, that would call themselves data scientists. Even when I started using that phrase a lot of people looked at me like it was a bad word and said, “Oh no, you want to be a scientist first, and then you just use the tools.” I’m going to push back a little bit now and say that there is a space out there for people who really understand the tools as well as the science. That’s something I would have told my younger self because it caused me a lot of stress and anxiety.

I would tell women starting out--and this goes for everyone actually--that there’s a way things have been done in the past, and that doesn’t make these methods wrong or bad. But one of the things that’s so exciting about getting new people into this field is that they’re going to bring new ways of thinking and their own perspectives, largely based on their own experiences, ways of learning, and the way their brains work. That is what makes it exciting! New ideas are going to come about. So my advice would be: “Get creative!” When people push back and tell you, “That’s not how it’s done,” maybe that means you’re actually doing it right. Maybe that’s what you should be doing. If we wanted the same people to do the same thing, we wouldn’t be training new people for the field. I think our field really needs to keep being creative, bringing in new perspectives and insights, and not get too used to doing things one way. This is especially true for a topic so unbelievably important and challenging as climate change. 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in a male-dominated field?

I have been so fortunate to not have dealt with many of the issues that my colleagues have dealt with in the past, or that my mom dealt with as the only female civil engineer working on construction sites in the 1970s. In college, I was told by a professor that I’d have to make a decision between having a family or being a scientist. The professor seemed to believe that being 19 years old was a good time to make that decision, or that I even had to make such a decision in the first place! Luckily, thanks to amazing mentors, including both of my parents, within ten minutes of walking away I was thinking about how absurd it was. I was so fortunate to know at that time that it was such a ridiculous statement and to not let it affect me or change the track of my life. So many people are not so lucky though, and their paths are completely derailed by thoughtless comments such as these.

All Photos Courtesy Dr. Elizabeth Barnes. 

 

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