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Women @ Energy: Elizabeth Hunke

May 6, 2014 - 1:48pm


Elizabeth Hunke develops advanced ocean and ice models for evaluating the role of ocean and ice in climate change and projecting the impact of such change globally.

Elizabeth Hunke develops advanced ocean and ice models for evaluating the role of ocean and ice in climate change and projecting the impact of such change globally.

Check out other profiles in the Women @ Energy series and share your favorites on Pinterest. This feature is cross-posted from Los Alamos National Laboratory's Women Who Inspire series.

Growing up, Elizabeth Hunke noticed her family never missed a weather forecast. The Tennessee farmers depended on the sky to water their crops, yet they kept a watchful eye on hurricanes that that could destroy their livelihood.

Weather could make or break many lives, so of course Hunke was thrilled to study it. A relatively new topic when she was finishing her Ph.D., climate change science and its connection to sea ice intrigued her.

She joined Los Alamos National Laboratory’s theoretical division as a sea ice modeler. As part of the Lab’s Climate, Ocean and Sea Ice Modeling (COSIM) project team, Hunke develops advanced ocean and ice models for evaluating the role of ocean and ice in climate change and projecting the impact of such change globally.

Modeling sea ice phenomena can be very difficult, and Hunke and colleagues broke a computational barrier by introducing a clever numerical solution, incorporated into an advanced and flexible thermal model called CICE, used by forecasting centers, climate modelers and researchers worldwide. Hunke also helps girls break barriers, encouraging them to Expand Their Horizons in aptly named science workshops of the same name.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

I thought I would be a musician. My high school did not offer AP or advanced courses in science, mathematics, or anything else. Instead, I played in the band. I learned to type. I was pretty good in math class, but the most advanced course offered was Algebra II.  Physics was the hardest subject offered, and I managed to get through that because I could do the math. During my first year of college, I postponed choosing a particular degree program and took all kinds of courses, including math, science and music. I learned two important things: first that if I majored in music, my enjoyment would probably fizzle because it would be “work,” and second that it would be much easier to make a living doing math or science, playing music for fun, than it would be to make a living playing music and doing math or science for fun.

My college guidance counselor, who was a math professor, introduced me to mathematical applications that were fascinating, things like population dynamics and the way drum heads vibrate. Then I got a summer job at AT&T Bell Laboratories, and that settled it: I wanted to work in a laboratory. I spent that entire summer sitting in front of a computer, trying to make a software program simulate the way certain atoms attach to other atoms in a potential superconductor. This was cutting-edge physics, but superconductors were inscrutable to me, and I realized that with a mathematics degree I'd have the basic skills to work on any scientific application that seemed interesting.

One day during graduate school, I listened to a professor give a mathematical description of how hurricanes work, and I thought I'd found my life's work.  I have always thought clouds were beautiful and mysterious, and my farming family depended on natural rainfall patterns, sometimes suffering through deluges brought by Gulf of Mexico storms.  I was thrilled to study such a powerful aspect of the weather.  This topic became the focus of my graduate studies.

When I began looking for a job, climate change was just becoming a hot topic. Sea ice and hurricanes seem like very different phenomena, but the mathematical equations used to describe them are quite similar. As I had anticipated, the mathematical knowledge and skills that I developed in graduate school translated easily to my new LANL job as a sea ice modeler for climate studies.

2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

One of the things I love best about making music is the sensation of creating something beautiful from essentially nothing.  Not everyone would consider a computer program beautiful, but designing a mathematical model for a particular scientific phenomenon and then writing a computer program to solve it is a creative process. With a great deal of help from my colleagues, I have made CICE the most physically advanced, user-friendly, and flexible sea ice model available.  Because it is also parallelized for high-performance computing, it is used by operational forecasting centers, climate modeling centers, and university researchers all over the world.  I am continually delighted when other scientists express appreciation for my work, which enables them to design and carry out their own scientific experiments.  If I were to choose one recent sub-project of which I am most proud, it would be the incorporation of chemical and biological processes into the sea ice model.  Having no expertise in this area myself, I encouraged other scientists to consider the polar ecosystem.  Intrigued, they have worked with me to create a sea ice ecosystem for the model, upgrading physical process representations where necessary and thereby filling a critical gap in Earth System Models, which strive to describe the effects of and on chemical/biological processes within the context of climate change.

I believe my sea ice modeling work has made a significant difference within the climate modeling community by providing a more reliable and higher fidelity description of high-latitude climate change than would otherwise have been available.  Climate modeling is all about understanding potential future change.  Although I do not espouse a particular viewpoint on climate change in my official publications, I do believe that we are already beyond the point of no return regarding climate change:  no matter what measures the human race takes to reduce its contribution now and in the future, anthropogenic climate change is already underway and we can not go back to the climate of 100 years ago.  We can only look to the future, mitigate some symptoms and otherwise adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.  In order to do that, we will have to understand what is happening and why.  My role as a sea ice modeler is a small contribution to this worldwide, vital effort.

3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

Encourage mentoring.  There are several women to whom I have looked as mentors.  The first was my mother, who has always had the courage to speak for what she thinks is right and to accomplish things that others told her she couldn’t or shouldn’t do.  Notably for my own future, she became a pilot when I was a small child.  The second woman was one of my high school math teachers, Mrs. Shirley Orman.  She had physical challenges, but she was both smart and friendly; from her I learned that women can think analytically through math problems  and that physical flaws need not be limiting.  The third woman had a tremendous influence on my life:  Dr. Julia Phillips, who now works at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.  When I met her, she ran a room-size molecular beam epitaxy machine and her own research group at AT&T Bell Laboratories, which I joined as a student intern.  That experience was a revelation and a transformative moment for me—indeed, I decided then that I wanted to work at a laboratory rather than at a university—and her mentoring provided exactly the scientific confidence that I needed at the time.

4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

When I was in high school, I remember my mother comforting me when I had become really frustrated with a homework assignment; she said that she admired my persistence.  At Bell Labs, I spent the entire summer configuring a pre-existing computer program for the particular atoms of interest.  Once properly configured, it only took a short time to run, and it’s telling that my first successful run occurred at the very end of my internship.  Of all character traits, I think perseverance is the one that has helped me the most.  I do get frustrated, but I will not give up until I figure out a solution. 

A career choice should be something you enjoy and are fairly good at doing, but for your long-term self-respect, I recommend finding a career with which you can fully support yourself.  I encourage girls to consider technical careers when I run workshops for the annual Expanding Your Horizons conference or when I introduce them to flight by taking them for a ride in my airplane, but I know that we can’t all become scientists, engineers and pilots.  We need musicians too!  Whatever the career, apply yourself to it with all the commitment and courage that you can muster, and you will find success.

5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

Music has always been an important part of my life, and I enjoy playing my French horn in various local orchestras, bands and chamber ensembles.  As a pilot I have found a group of highly supportive women friends in The Ninety-Nines, and I have devoted a great deal of my time off to this organization.  I served as Treasurer, Vice-Chair and Chair of the local chapter from 2003 to 2013, and now I continue duties as newsletter editor, webmaster, and informal coordinator for our flying adventures.  I also serve on the Santa Fe Airport Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the Santa Fe City Council regarding operations, planning and future development of the airport.  At home, I love to grow flowers, fruits and vegetables, and I enjoy the creative aspects of cooking using whatever ingredients happen to be on hand, talents shared happily with my husband.