BECOMING INVOLVED in science was almost a foregone conclusion for Li Sihan. Her mother teaches chemistry. Her dad taught physics, until he passed away eight years ago. Even her grandfather was a math teacher. In fact, most of her neighbors were teachers. During Li’s childhood, the Chinese government made a habit of building affordable housing for its teachers next to its schools. Growing up in a community of teachers shaped a lot about Li’s life.
“I didn’t have a babysitter growing up, so I would just play in my parents’ labs,” laughs Li.
Li is now a graduate student at Oregon State University where since 2011 she’s worked with the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI). She’s also a Fellow of the Northwest Climate Science Center, and her work is supported in part by the Regional Approaches to Climate Change for the Pacific Northwest Agriculture project.
Li says she’s always been interested in all types of science and math. However, it was that hodgepodge discipline of math and physics known as atmospheric sciences that really drew her in.
“I like it because it’s a little bit of everything,” she says.
Li wasn’t impressed with weather forecasting in her native China. Initially wanting to improve local forecasts, Li studied atmospheric sciences at Yunnan University. When she started searching for graduate schools, she found a new love: climate science. Her new fascination started following an interview with OCCRI Director Philip Mote, now Li’s graduate advisor. At the time, Mote told Li about a project he and OCCRI had become involved with that used donated computer processing over the Internet to run climate model simulations.
The project, called weather@home or climateprediction.net, requires no special skills to join. All you need is a computer and an Internet connection. This type of computing—called distributed computing—has proven a popular way for researchers to harness computational muscle without having to rent a supercomputer. Distributed computing has aided scientists in modeling the complex geography of proteins and even in the search for extraterrestrial life. For Li, something else drew her to the project.
“I became really interested in this concept of citizen involvement in science,” says Li.
Being involved in weather@home, says Li, was about more than just harnessing computer power; it was about making climate change real for nonscientists.
“People often put scientists in a bubble or shrine. Or they do the opposite and deny our results without understanding how we came to them. The reason, I think, is the science is too removed. Projects like weather@home help people to sneak a peek at the science. They can see the models running on their computers, and that’s exciting,” she says.
Li’s acquired something else out of weather@home: a large portion of her graduate project, the first part of which was published last month in the Journal of Climate and reviewed in this month’s CIRCulator. Her project uses weather@home to help simulate climate in the western United States using a regional climate model. The work focuses on ways to improve the modeling process by helping set parameters for different small-scale meteorological features. The idea is simple: make sure smaller features of the model, such as how clouds form, behave accurately to ensure larger trends, such as annual precipitation, also behave accurately. It’s painstaking work, but for Li it’s a dream job. And, she says, she hopes it will make for better climate predictions.
“This might be a cliché, but what really drives me is I want to be part of the solution,” says Li. “I want to make better predictions so people can better prepare for what is coming, even though I’m only a small part of the scientific effort.”
To volunteer your computer to the effort, go to climateprediction.net/getting-started.
Photo: Li Sihan after winning Oregon State University’s Burt Award. The Burt Award is given to outstanding students in physical oceanography or atmospheric sciences. The award is named after Wayne Burt, the founder of OSU’s oceanography department. (Photo Credit: Phil Mote, 2014)
Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writer. Other Posts by this Author.