Dr. Zeljka Fuchs-Stone and the Climate and Water Consortium

Dr. Zeljka Fuchs-Stone and the Climate and Water Consortium

What do farmers, firefighters, soldiers, and surfers have in common? They all rely on good weather forecasts. The weather is everyone’s concern because it affects everyone. Most people know how to look up a forecast online and some people are familiar with global weather patterns, but very few people actually understand the science of our atmosphere. New Mexico Tech’s physics department is home to a scientist who specializes in the physics of weather: Zeljka Fuchs-Stone.

Dr. Fuchs-Stone is the director of the Climate and Water Consortium, and is a researcher, professor, project manager, mom, and more. She originally came to NMT from Croatia for graduate work, and later joined Tech as a faculty member. Fuchs-Stone brings a significant amount of knowledge and experience to NMT. Last week I interviewed her about her background and research to learn from her insights.

Better Understanding and Better Forecasts

Understanding climate and predicting the weather isn’t easy. Dr. Fuchs-Stone says there are two main reasons we don’t have better weather forecasts: we don’t understand all the physics of the atmosphere and we don’t have enough data. To better predict the weather we need to expand our understanding in both of these areas.

For understanding the physics, Dr. Fuchs-Stone’s specialty is working out the governing equations of physics analytically. She specializes in the parameterization of convection—anything that will cause a vertical column to moisten and form clouds. She is known for figuring out the basic mechanism for the biggest planetary disturbance we have—the Madden–Julian Oscillation (MJO). This is a wave that travels around the globe very slowly, with a wavelength equal to the circumference of the earth. It’s not a well-known phenomenon, but it’s extremely important because of the amount of rain it produces. Regarding her work on the MJO, she says, “My analytical model from 2017 is being cited a lot because people are using numerical models and invoking my hypothesis.”

She also works to gather more climate data, which sometimes involves flying into storms and hurricanes. While flying through a storm, researchers can drop sensors that take measurements as they fall through the atmosphere. When this is done at different locations on different days, it provides a valuable picture of what is going on in the atmosphere. One important question Dr. Fuchs-Stone would like to answer is this: why do some storms develop into hurricanes and other storms don’t? Collecting data on research flights will ultimately help to provide an answer.

The Real World Connection

At the Climate and Water Consortium, a long-term goal is figuring out ways climate research can help the real world. Accurate weather forecasts are important to farmers as they consider which crops to plant, and where and when. Engineers need to know where to put solar panels and doctors want to know what exotic diseases we will be battling tomorrow. These are examples of ways in which understanding the atmosphere can benefit the world. Applying climate research to real world problems is especially important considering the challenge of climate change. With a greater understanding of our atmosphere we want to figure out how to prepare ourselves for the future, she says.

Motivation to Succeed

Dr. Fuchs-Stone says she has the best job in the world. “It’s never the same. It can be frustrating, but it has to be for me, because I get bored otherwise. I need the challenge.” She says it’s exciting to work in a field where you can still make very basic discoveries. She loves math, taking the paper and the pencil and writing the equations. “Equations are my friends,” she laughs.

But the road to success wasn’t easy. In Croatia her department chair told her there was no position for her as a grad student because she was a woman. She told him “I will see you when we are colleagues” and slammed the door. And in addition to dealing with war ravaging her homeland, she has raised three children while pursuing a career in academia. “I think that having kids and raising kids is harder than getting a PhD…It’s hard, but doing something I don’t like would be harder. As long as this is what I am burning for, I can do it.”

She tries to inspire people to go after their dreams and to get out of their comfort zones. “For me, every time I got out of my comfort zone, something amazing happened.” Her message to Tech students: “The world is yours.” Young people can do amazing things and those who are passionate about things will change the world for the better. “You can’t see where you will be in 10 years…you have to do the work the best you can and then things open up. You have to have that trust in yourself that you’ll pull through because it’s not easy…I think courage pays off, big time.”

—James Nolan

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