Geek of the Week

Catch her drift: UW sea ice scientist Maddie Smith set to embark on one-of-a-kind polar expedition

Maddie Smith in the Beaufort Sea in 2015, in front of the R/V Sikuliaq. “It was my first time standing on sea ice (over thousands of meters of water!), so I was pretty excited.” (Photo courtesy of Maddie Smith)

Maddie Smith is ready to drift through life for a little while. But it’s not because she’s lost focus. In fact, the postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory is embarking on the trip of a lifetime for any scientist interested in better understanding global warming.

A sea ice and ocean scientist, Smith completed her PhD last summer in civil and environmental engineering. Her fieldwork took her to the Arctic a number of times, and also to the Antarctic. She uses the observations of the physical changes in these systems to understand the role of the ocean in changes in the ice cover.

And now Smith is off to join the largest polar expedition in history — the MOSAiC drift station, a floating research platform frozen into the ice near the North Pole since the end of September.

“This expedition gives us an essential opportunity to dig deep into understanding the Arctic system — which is the frontline for changes happening as a result of global warming,” said Smith, our latest Geek of the Week. “I am a part of the team trying to understand changes in the sea ice, which floats on top of the ocean the entire year but has been getting alarmingly thinner and less extensive in recent years.”

Click to enlarge. (AWI Graphic via UW)

Smith flew from Seattle to Germany last week and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is self quarantining in a hotel room for two weeks before joining the ship. The ongoing health crisis has disrupted the MOSAiC mission in big ways because of travel restrictions and flight cancellations. The journal Nature reported that Polarstern, the German research vessel central to the expedition, is being forced to temporarily leave its position and abandon the research camp where it has been frozen so that it can exchange its crew. The move will impact data being collected over the course of the year-long mission.

“With all fieldwork, and especially an expedition of this size, you always expect to have some logistical challenges and change of plans,” Smith said. “But, a global pandemic has been a challenge beyond anything we ever could have predicted. It’s been a real roller coaster just to get where we are.”

Smith was concerned the entire expedition would be ended and said it would have been a huge loss for climate science after so many years of planning. She’s ecstatic that an altered plan has been devised — if not a little sad.

“It hit me that after months of already not seeing friends and family, I now won’t get to see them until at least August,” she said. “It’s a strange time to be leaving home and loved ones, and I’m just desperately hoping I come back to a better world when we return.”

Like many people who end up studying environmental sciences, Smith said she started with a love for spending time outside. She got into running in high school, which may have been because she obsessed with being in nature, in the fresh air. She still runs, and also loves to cycle, hike, kayak and climb.

While Smith hopes to collect plenty of data on the MOSAiC trip and learn more about how sea ice is melting, she’s up for new discoveries.

“The thing I’m most looking forward to are the things you wouldn’t have expected,” she said. “The surprises, the things that change how you understand the system.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Maddie Smith:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I study the physics of sea ice and the ocean. I particularly want to trace how heat moves through the system, which is obviously a key to understanding how global warming works in this region. There’re two major components to this work. The first is the fieldwork, like that I’m about to embark on. During MOSAiC, we will constantly measure everything we can about how the heat from the sun is warming the ice and the ocean, and how this is changing and melting the ice. I’ll be on the MOSAiC station for about two months. During that time, I’ll spend every day that I can working on the sea ice with my colleagues, using instrumentation to measure the heat from the sun and through the ice, taking samples of the ice, and more. The second step is to distill these observations into the most important physical relationships, which we can then incorporate into the models we use to make projections of the Earth’s climate.

Arctic sea ice demands our attention now because the Arctic climate is changing more rapidly than anywhere else in the globe, and we have the most uncertainty in how it will change in the future. So, it has an outsized impact on our predictions and decisions related to global warming. Although our climate models already have sophisticated representations of the sea ice, the Arctic is shifting to a new regime that may necessitate an update. There are always things that can be improved. I can’t imagine not being a part of the effort to understand and reverse climate change. This is the most interesting and exciting way I can picture doing that.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Sea ice matters, not just for the Arctic, but for you, wherever you are in the world. It is like the air conditioning for the planet, regulating our global climate. And, we can reverse its loss with quick, meaningful action.

Where do you find your inspiration? It may sound cliché, but I really am inspired by how incredible our world is — and of course, especially sea ice and the ocean. A small example: did you know flowers can grow on sea ice? Okay, they’re not normal flowers, but under certain conditions sea ice can form what are called frost flowers. They are beautiful, delicate structures made of ice filaments, and super salty. There are so many little things to get excited about.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My laptop. It keeps me connected and productive wherever I am in the world — from Germany (where I currently am), to Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean. It’s so important to have access to my data and analysis when I’m traveling or in the field.

Maddie Smith’s temporary view and workspace in Germany. (Photo courtesy of Maddie Smith)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? As a result of the threat of Coronavirus, I’m currently in quarantine in a hotel in Bremerhaven, Germany, for two weeks before we head out on a research vessel to join the MOSAiC drift station north of Svalbard. It’s certainly far from my normal workspace — my desk at home is not quite this clean — but I certainly can’t complain. I’ve been really enjoying the awesome view of the canal to watch vessels coming in and out. I’ve learned that all I really need for a good productive workspace is my laptop, headphones, and coffee. I’m looking forward to being on the drifting research station in a few weeks, when my everyday workspace will be out on the sea ice. That’s the best part about this job.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) It’s important to set boundaries, but it’s just as important to know how far you’re willing to push those boundaries. What work deadlines are you willing to work through a weekend for? What are the things in your life you are not willing to miss for work? People talk a lot about setting boundaries as a key to work-life balance, but in academia and research it is rarely that easy. That balance looks difference for everyone, and you have to work for it.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, since I do have to use parallels for running software for instrumentation.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Can I still be a geek if I say no opinion?

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine. So much of what we do as scientists is trying to reconstruct the story of what has happened in the past, and predict what might happen in the future. How cool would it be if we could just go there and measure it?

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Does it have to be profitable? If I had a million dollars, I’d like to fund scientists to finish old projects, using data that has already been collected. For obvious reasons, the focus of funding agencies is on shiny new projects that might be the next big thing. But there is lots of important progress to be made with data and ideas that are already out there. Good science is incremental.

I once waited in line for … I am part of the Harry Potter generation. I waited in line for the release of the last few books in the series, and a number of the movies. I’m still waiting for the next series to get me as excited as Harry Potter did as a kid.

Your role models: I feel incredibly fortunate to be working with a couple of my role models on this project (Bonnie Light and Marika Holland). They are the kind of scientists I aspire to be not just because they are creative and smart, they are inclusive and welcoming and so fun to work with. (Despite what you may hear, science is a team sport.) Sea ice science is full of awesome, inspiring women who are changing the way we understand the world.

Greatest game in history: Don’t laugh, but … Nancy Drew computer games. I love a good puzzle.

Best gadget ever: Aeropress.

First Computer: Macbook Pro.

Current phone: iPhone 7.

Favorite app: I rely heavily on: Spotify for good music while I work (lately the New Orleans Brass playlist has been really getting me through), and the Notes app, which I am constantly using to jot down thoughts and ideas or make to-do lists.

Favorite cause: The grassroots organizations around the world that are fighting for a justice-oriented response to the climate crisis.

Most important technology of 2020: ICESat-2 is a satellite focused on measuring sea ice and ice sheets. It was launched in 2018, but we are beginning to really see the game-changing nature of these observations with more than a year of observations complete. “Remote sensing” observation innovations like this are changing the way we are able to monitor changes in the frozen parts of our climate system.

Most important technology of 2022: Autonomous instrumentation.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: I’ll end with a quote from Fridtjof Nansen, who completed the first trans-Arctic drift 127 years before MOSAiC, which is apt for our current times as well as polar exploration:
“The first great thing is to find yourself and for that you need solitude and contemplation — at least sometimes. I can tell you deliverance will not come from the rushing noisy centers of civilization. It will come from the lonely places.”

Embrace solitude. Embrace contemplation. We will get through this.

Website: Polar Science Center bio

Twitter: @madmscientist

LinkedIn: Maddie Smith

Related Articles

Trả lời

Email của bạn sẽ không được hiển thị công khai. Các trường bắt buộc được đánh dấu *