Connecting Climates One Map at a Time
Written by Chelsey Bentley
Usually when I hear the words “climate change”, I sit reminiscing for a minute. My brain goes back to the high school science classes where I often sat doodling as the teacher tried her best to explain the dangers of climate change. Being from the cold north, most of my fellow students equated climate change with warmer winters, more sun and more dips in the pool. But for 2011 SURF student Melissa Wrzesien, a junior Environmental Science and Applied Math major, climate change was a deeper interest she chose to research. Her project, “The Climate Network: Analyzing the Complex Connections of Earth’s Climate”, replicated a study done in 2009. Melissa used publically available temperature data from around the globe to replicate the study and used a program called Matlab to create programs to transfer the data and create maps showing different network measures. To me, this sounded like the calculus I never understood in high school, until Melissa explained. Basically, she attempted to replicate the study to see if she would end up with the same results. Once she obtained all the data, she took it a step further and analyzed the climate data and interactions.
Most people don’t notice similarities between weather in Chicago and Hong Kong, but that is what Melissa sought to find. The ultimate goal of her project was to see the connections of how temperatures are related around the world. Her advisor, Dr. Peter Mucha, tailored his specialty of network analysis to fit Melissa’s interest of climate change. “Dr. Mucha is in the math department, but my career goals are more centered on the implications of climate change. We wanted to do a network analysis, but we picked this one because I am interested in climate change, I was very pleased that he was willing to tailor his specialty to my interests. It is one of the first studies that combines the two,” Melissa said.
One challenge to her research was that Melissa did not know much about programming when she first began. She also had to figure out how to work with the data format in which the temperature data was presented. Besides the results that she obtained by doing research, Melissa learned how important it is to make connections with different professors outside one’s major. A lot of students avoid connecting with professors outside their major or area of interest, which is something Melissa advises against. She said, “Dr. Mucha was someone that I would normally go to for math advising. However, now he will be someone that I will go to figure out life plans after undergrad. Professors really are here to advise students. They’ve been in the exact situations that we’re finding ourselves in now”.
Melissa’s advice to future researchers is not to be afraid to get involved. “Email anyone whose research interests you. Make those connections because they will most definitely help you in the future. I learned that I don’t really want to do network analysis, as it was very difficult for me. I gained great skills and a great relationship with my professor as well,” she said.
Melissa hopes to continue with her research in the spring and try to take her research further. “One of the students I worked with this summer wrote programming and we are thinking of combining the two,” she said.
Melissa’s research shows that even when you research something you think you know fairly well, you more than likely will come away from your research with new information or skills. You may find that you really don’t like your topic of study as much as you once thought, or you may enjoy it even more. Research allows you to connect with professors outside your comfort area, and create a close bond. Research can take you as far as your curiosity permits, whether that is across different areas of study or across continents.