In honor of Women’s History Month, we are profiling female staff and scientists who work at the NOAA Climate Program Office (CPO) or are funded by NOAA CPO. Dr. Allison Wing, the subject of this interview, works as an assistant professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science (EOAS) at Florida State University. She also holds an appointment as an adjunct associate research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Her research is sometimes funded by NOAA CPO’s Modeling, Analysis, Predictions, and Projections (MAPP) Program. She studies atmospheric dynamics and climate, with specific interests in tropical cyclones and tropical convection.
Dr. Allison Wing in front of the NOAA P-3 “Kermit.”
How did your interest in weather and climate develop?
I watched The Weather Channel every day in middle school and kept my own notebook with all the forecasts. When I was really seriously thinking about what I wanted to study when I was in high school and looking at colleges, I nearly studied physics. I really liked physics and it was my favorite class in high school. But I wanted to study something that was more applied and immediately relevant to people and society. That then drew me back to my original interest in weather. I thought that I could combine my interest in physics and weather because atmospheric science is the study of the physics of weather and climate. So, then I just sort of decided that and looked for colleges that had programs in atmospheric science. I really never looked back from that point.
How would you describe the mentors that you’ve had?
I’ve had a lot of different people that have been mentors to me over the years in different settings. My PhD advisor, Kerry Emanuel, was a really important mentor academically, scientifically, and professionally. You don’t really realize how much you continue to rely on your PhD advisor even long after you graduate. I can’t count how many letters of recommendation he’s written for me over the years. I definitely still feel like I can contact him and get advice on different things about my job and career. Two other people who have been really important mentors for me were the advisors I had for both for my undergraduate research internship as well as my postdoc. I worked with Adam Sobel and Suzana Camargo as an undergrad summer intern at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.
Then, eight years later, I came back and worked with them as a postdoc. They’ve been incredibly supportive of my trajectory overall and I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without that initial start that I got in that internship with them. I especially appreciate the support that they gave to me when I was a postdoc and when I was looking for jobs. It was also the first time that I had worked with a female mentor – Suzana Camargo. All of my advisors have been incredibly supportive of me, but it was special to work with another woman given that there are so few women in our field and to really see how successful she’s been and how strong an advocate she is. I continue to collaborate with both Suzana and Adam, so it has been nice to continue that relationship.
It sounds like you kind of came full circle starting as an undergraduate intern and then returning to work with Drs. Sobel and Camargo as a postdoc. Thinking about yourself at both those phases in life undergraduate and now with your advanced degree, can you just describe a little bit of that experience?
It actually goes even more full circle than that because I actually was able to publish a paper based on my research in that undergrad summer internship. I know now that it is rare to get a paper out of an undergrad summer research project. I had a masters student, Shannon Shields, who graduated in 2019, and we published a paper that followed up on that work that I did as an undergrad, now 14 years ago. That was an incredible full circle moment, to go from a project I did as a sophomore in college to being a professor advising a student whose research project followed up on my prior work. Returning to the question about being an undergrad intern and going back to work with the same people in the same place for my postdoc, it was in many ways very familiar, comfortable, and easy. However, I certainly was different, because when I first worked with them, I didn’t know much atmospheric science! After I had earned a PhD, our relationship changed and we became more like colleagues. It was really nice to have grown in that relationship. It’d be interesting to get their perspective on what was different about it! I think when I did that internship as an undergrad sophomore I had not even really taken any atmospheric science classes yet. I really knew nothing!
What does work look like for you on a daily basis?
I study tropical convection, tropical cyclones and climate, primarily using idealized numerical modeling–though also some analysis of observations and analysis of comprehensive climate models. My research involves a lot of data analysis and interpreting results from different model simulations. Sometimes when I’m actually running a simulation, it involves wrangling the supercomputer to submit jobs and run the simulations. I have four graduate students right now, so a lot of my day-to-day research-related work is also talking to them about their research: hearing their latest results, interpreting them together, and discussing what we think the next steps should be.
The other part of my day-to-day involves the other parts of my job: teaching and advising. Those aspects are definitely much harder to manage remotely (during the COVID-19 pandemic) compared to research. I think in some regards the research side has been the easiest part to adapt over the last year. Teaching online takes so much more time than doing so in person and it gives much less back in return. Sometimes it feels like I’m just talking to a wall. Normally, teaching is something that really inspires and energizes me and is very rewarding. Teaching remotely, you really don’t get much of that feeling back; you’re putting more time into it and not getting as much in return. Regarding advising students, I have weekly Zoom meetings with each of my students–meetings which normally would have been in person. We’re still able to communicate and we have group meetings regularly as well, but it’s just not the same as sitting across the table from someone or writing on the whiteboard together. I feel like all of us have collectively needed more support from our colleagues and peers through this. I think advising and mentoring takes more time and effort during this time as well. So, those sides of my work have been much more demanding and taking more time–which then has an impact on my research as well.
I read that one of your research flights was nine hours long. Is that correct?
Yes, research flights are pretty long. You’re essentially out there for as long as the plane can fly, based on fuel limitations. Once you are out there, you want to be able to take as many observations and collect as much data as possible. Typically, the flights are 7-9 hours long, but it went by quickly!
I went on one research flight as part of NSF’s OTREC (the Organization of Tropical East Pacific Convection) campaign, where we were collecting data on tropical convection in the East Pacific. I must have taken 3000 pictures out the window, in addition to watching the dropsonde and radar data as it was coming in.
Similarly, I had the opportunity to participate in EUREC4A and NOAA’s ATOMIC (Atlantic Tradewind Ocean–Atmosphere Mesoscale Interaction Campaign), which were campaigns held in the Atlantic near Barbados last year. That was actually the last trip I went on before the pandemic hit in February 2020. It’s amazing now to think back about it; I’m so grateful that we were able to do that right before the world imploded. During ATOMIC, I was able to go on one of the NOAA P-3 night flights. We flew 8 hours overnight. We were studying shallow convective clouds that are in the tropical Atlantic there. We were going up and down–basically flying just below the clouds and then in the clouds, then above. It was the middle of the night (it was a 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM flight), so I was a little tired but it was still really cool. It was a full moon so we actually still could see quite a lot out the window. These research flights were incredible experiences and I am so grateful for the opportunity to participate in them. As someone who is primarily a modeler, there was something really special about being able to be out in the field and observe the phenomena that you are studying firsthand. I also now have a real appreciation for how hard it is to collect observations.
View from the NOAA P-3 “Miss Piggy” night flight.
You’ve started a video series online explaining aspects of your work. Why was it important to you to find a way to teach and share your field with others?
Those videos came out of necessity because of the pandemic. In the fall, I teach an undergraduate atmospheric dynamics class and I normally do live demonstrations with the rotating tank. I was first exposed to the rotating tank when I was a graduate student. At MIT, they developed a suite of “Weather in a Tank” experiments that tie into the curriculum. I really loved those experiments; I thought they were super fun and a really great way to make dynamics more exciting. It’s a way to connect all these equations we’re writing down on paper with the actual phenomenon that we were observing. So, when I started teaching dynamics, I really wanted to bring that into my class, but this past fall teaching remotely, obviously I wasn’t able to do that.
One of Dr. Wing’s instructional videos. This one covers baroclinic instability.
I was trying to figure out how I could record videos of those experiments so that I could at least show the videos in class. Actually one of my graduate students, Jake Carstens, a teaching assistant for the class, suggested we use the video equipment in the Florida State University weather television studio. We have a TV studio where the students do weathercasting and Jake had done that so he was familiar with the equipment. It was great to be able to use that professional video recording equipment and have multiple cameras with multiple angles to record the experiments. I made them to show in my class, but I decided to post them on YouTube and add my narration of what was going on. I thought other people could use the videos as well. I have friends and colleagues who teach similar classes at other universities and they were enthusiastic about the videos.
That was how those videos arose and we do have more that we’re working on. I’m backlogged at getting them processed and posted but it’s definitely something that I’m going to continue. We’re also working with the Office of STEM Teaching at FSU and their Science on the Move program to help to bring some of those videos into our outreach efforts as well. Just over the last couple of weeks, we have done some of our first virtual visits into elementary school classrooms through the Scientist in Every Florida School program. We talk to the kids about weather and climate and show them snippets of those videos of the tank experiments to demonstrate different concepts. Those videos and tank experiments are great outreach tools and I’m definitely hoping to do more of them in the future.
The tank experiments are always a big hit with students. With college students, you are kind of always wondering if they’re really liking the videos. It’s hard to tell sometimes, but I knew they liked the tank experiments because they would come up to take pictures and videos of them, and then post them on Snapchat. I thought: I’ve made it in the world, students are snapchatting my classes! Many people are using these types of demonstrations in teaching and outreach settings, so I’m not unique in this, but it’s been really fun.
Dr. Wing with her research group.
If you could choose an overarching research question that is the basis of your career, what would it be?
The overarching questions of my research are: how does tropical convection organize, how is that affected by climate, and how does it feedback on climate? That encompasses all of my research efforts into both the mechanisms of organization of convection and the mechanisms of tropical cyclone development, which you could consider as a special type of organized tropical convection. I think one of the biggest unanswered questions in tropical meteorology is: what controls the number of tropical cyclones that we have in a climate context? Why do we have 90 per year? Hopefully, my work on understanding the mechanisms by which tropical cyclones form and develop, and more broadly, how convection organizes, will help us make some progress towards answering that question. Some of my work is focused more on tropical cyclone formation, some is focused more on tropical cyclone intensity and variability, and some is focused on general convective organization, climate interactions, and cloud feedbacks. There are a lot of different pieces, but organization of tropical convection and climate is the umbrella that everything falls under.
If you could give your 13-year-old self-advice for her future what would it be?
I would say: don’t give up on your dreams and goals; instead, have confidence in yourself and work towards them while still giving yourself space to have fun and explore different opportunities.
I have certainly had imposter syndrome and lacked confidence during various points of my career. My first semester of grad school was really difficult and I doubted whether or not I belonged there. I went to grad school at MIT, which is an incredible school with so many smart people, and I questioned whether I deserved to be there and was really afraid that they would regret accepting me. Eventually I came into my own. I think so many people experience those types of feelings, so it’s important to share them. In the moment, you’re not able to realize that other people are probably having doubts as well and you actually do belong there. It’s important to continually remind yourself and remind others that those feelings are normal and you are qualified and you are meant to be where you are.
All photos courtsey of Dr. Allison Wing.