John Kerry at ODU

Yesterday, around noon, Secretary of State John Kerry stopped at ODU to give an address on climate change and national security.  I went, in part because it sounded interesting and I wanted to hear what he had to say, and in part because it was just across the street and required very little effort to attend.

During the event, I live-tweeted parts of his speech that particularly struck me, as a scientist and as a graduate student.  My tweets are at the bottom of this post, but you can also check out #KerryatODU for more if you are interested.  Or, you know, just visit me on twitter.

Now that I’ve had a day or so to mull over what he said, here are some of my thoughts and reactions to his speech.  In no particular order:

  • The US has a superiority complex.  I was under the impression that most of the international community held some scorn for us – for wasting time debating climate change instead of doing something about it.  Kerry’s speech had a strong theme of the US as a world leader, especially in setting standards for emissions.  Maybe my impressions are outdated and I need to do some more research, or maybe it’s just a matter of course, that a speech from a prominent politician is based on “America is awesome” rhetoric.
  • Science isn’t that simple.  I admit, I was slightly impressed when Kerry pulled out a quick explanation of how floating ice melting does not add to sea level rise, while land ice melting does.  However, it was a glaring example to me of how the public could misinterpret science.  What he said was true, but that doesn’t mean that changing amounts of sea ice don’t matter.  Sea ice has more complex interactions with the whole climate system, including insulating the ocean and reflecting incoming solar radiation.  So, while I applaud the attempt to bring in simple science concepts, I think we actually need more acknowledgement of the complexity of climate science, and trust in the ability of scientists who are trained to understand and interpret climate change.
  • One speech isn’t enough.  There were many times during the speech where I thought to myself: good point, but what about mentioning these other associated issues?  Then I realized that this 30 minute speech was going on 45 minutes.  There is so much to say about climate change, and so many intricacies to discuss, that one speech will never be enough to cover it.  This led me to two conclusions.  One, that what he did say is a good snapshot of what the current administration is prioritizing.  And two, that it’s up to the rest of us to keep the conversation going and get the information out there.
  • A military talk for a military audience.  Norfolk, VA is a hub of military activity from all branches, and a lot of points in his speech reflected that.  The focus was not on humanitarian aid for people adversely affected by climate change.  Instead, he used the speech here to announce a new task force to analyze regions of the world that are under the combined influence of local political instability and high risk of extreme events from climate change.  Climate change doesn’t cause political instability, but it can make already unstable situations worse.  Areas that combine both factors are threats to US national security (and probably the security of other nations as well).

Overall it was an interesting speech.  I was happy to hear such a strong message of “climate change is caused by us and we need to fix it” from the US government.  And if focusing on national security and military matters is how the US becomes more involved in climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, well, that’s not a bad outcome either.  What do you think?

Here are my tweets directly from the speech (and one bonus one from ODU):


On REU Students

About a month ago now, my office was unexpectedly flooded with a large number of undergraduate students.  Their expressions ranged from nervous to interested to bored.

Mine was one of pure panic.

You see, about 30 seconds before they entered, I had managed to spill an extra large mug of mango tea all over everything.  My desk, my papers, the keyboard, my pants, the floor…  Everything.

And here were these new students, ready to be welcomed and shown around.  Somehow, I managed to get up and greet them with a smile.  Then I squelched around for a few minutes, before sitting with them for a welcome talk.  In a cold classroom.  With wet pants.

Like this, but with a much larger mug

Despite my initial negative feelings about being invaded by undergraduates, I think it is great that they are here.  They are all participants in NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).  The general purpose of this program is to expose undergraduate students to all the annoyances glories of research.  For 10 weeks they focus solely on research and get a good idea of what it is like to be a graduate student.  If they like it, they now have experience that looks awesome on a resume.  And if they don’t, well, they get a pretty good stipend.  Win-win.

Let me tell you, these REU students have it good.  They have talks and seminars about climate change science, oceanography, giving presentations, etc…  They also get to go on field trips.  Seriously.  Field trips.  Of course, what else would you do in an oceanography department but go out on the water for a day.  Or take a geological tour of the surrounding countryside.

This is what I imagine their field trip to be like, only they would be larger.

The rest of their time, at least during the day, is spent doing research.  Depending on their advisor, they might work on a stand alone research project, or contribute a section to a larger research goal.  Three of them have moved into my office for the summer.  (Don’t worry, there’s plenty of space.)  They are all atmospheric science majors, which works out really well for us.  Being a physical oceanography center, we deal a lot with the atmosphere, but no one really *does* atmospheric work.  So the REU students are contributing their expertise to our ongoing, cutting edge research.

The interesting thing about the REU program is that it is very dependent on the host university.  As long as the local program director provides the students with research experience and some extracirrcular activities, NSF doesn’t seem to care too much how that is done.  I’ve participated in the REU program at two other universities as an undergrad, as well as observing the one going on now.  They all felt quite different, but each was beneficial in its own way.

Here, besides the fun stuff, the students get experience with the other main part of research – presenting your work.  They gave a short, introductory talk the week after they arrived.  Then, at the halfway point, they will give another short talk about their progress.  The program finishes up with a final presentation and a paper.  If things work out well, they might even get published!

If you are interested in participating in the REU program, applications are different for individual universities and are typically due around December or January.  Unfortunately, it is only open to US citizens or permanent residents.  If you can’t participate in the program, I would strongly suggest getting research experience somewhere before going to graduate school.  But more on that topic later.

Have you ever participated in research as an undergraduate?  What did you think of the experience?  Did it give you a better idea of what graduate school would be like?  I’m curious to see what others’ experiences were like!