Undergraduate Complexity Research
Clara Orbe is a Research Physical Scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City, a small division within NASA Earth Sciences that is oriented toward predicting long-term climate change. She also holds a faculty appointment at Columbia University. Orbe earned a B.S. from Brown University and a Ph.D. from Columbia University; her graduate and postdoctoral studies were supported by NASA fellowships. She was an Undergraduate Complexity Researcher (UCR) at SFI in 2006.
Why did you decide to do an undergraduate research experience at SFI?
I was an applied math major at Brown, but at that time, I hadn't yet chosen the concentration – like chemistry or biology. I remember at that point being open to doing anything that was theoretical in spirit, and very open to interdisciplinary projects. Now everything is interdisciplinary, but at that time (not that it was so long ago), Santa Fe's UCR was so unique. I had never come across a program like that.
The summer before, I had been at an REU in Los Alamos, at the national lab, looking at mathematical epidemiology, R0 and such. So via that experience, I became more aware of what was happening at SFI and was like "I really really want to do that", to continue those ideas but also branch out. And what was nice about SFI is that I could develop my own project and work with a mentor on that. That's what initially compelled me to go to SFI. As an undergraduate, you're very much trying to figure out what to do with your life and what you're interested in.
What do you remember about your time at SFI?
I remember having an incredible time. I remember having lunch and sitting down next to this old man and then realizing after the fact that it's Cormac McCarthy and just being stunned. Even though most of my courses in undergrad were in math - applied or pure - I've always been interested in the arts. I was always interested in different things. it just seemed obvious that SFI was the place to pursue that.
I think fondly of SFI. It's such a unique place. It was important for me. I just remember being in that environment – it was so moving. You go there and, like, the view! I was from the east coast and I had never seen views like that. You look in all directions and it's just an expanse. It's a special place.
Your current research is very much about a complex system. What specifically are you working on?
Our goal at GISS is to develop a climate model that we can use to make projections of future climate. There are also applications to exoplanets and to paleoclimates, but the work I do is centered around the development and application of the theory and the numerics behind that model. Then using that model to inform projections, which we deliver to governments.
In particular, the component of the earth system modeling that I do is really oriented at studying the stratosphere. What goes on up in the stratosphere has a big impact on earth's surface climate. This can happen via changes in ozone and it can just be variations occurring from year to year. I'm quite interested in that part of the problem and how it might change the future climate.
How did your interest shift from epidemiology to climate science?
When I was at SFI, I met someone who was a professor at Columbia at that time. He was visiting SFI. He was doing research in something that I thought I might want to do, which was applying epidemiological models to studying behaviors and social systems. We had a lot of discussions – and I always knew I wanted to go to New York for grad school – so I applied to Columbia in the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics. I didn't apply to earth sciences because I was completely unqualified; I had never taken an earth science course.
The department doesn't make you decide what you want to do in the first year, so you have some time to figure out who you want to work with. That department is very diverse: applied physics, materials science, medical physics. There were two people in applied math with an atmospheric focus and I basically started talking with one of them and liked him. It was a good personal relationship. He was from a very good theoretical background – very much interested in fluid dynamics and geophysical fluid applications – so even though I felt uncomfortable studying a system that I knew very little about – I didn't even understand how physicists thought about things, and coming from math, you have to cross that – he was a good mentor because he understood where I was coming from. My Ph.D. thesis, even though it was very applied, it was also very math-heavy. It was something I enjoyed doing. It had some climate relevance. It helped ease me into the field. And it gave me a unique set of tools.
So it was that: a combination of really wanting to go to New York, and having a good relationship with my advisor who also realized what my strength was.
What is one of the challenges of climate modeling?
One of the tools that people use to improve weather forecasts is data assimilation, the integration of the observations with the model. This is where NASA satellites and missions come into play. At NASA we have that capability of extracting that information from the data. That is a unique and big component of what goes on at NASA. It always goes back to the observations, always goes back to the satellites. How do we evaluate the models? How do we assess their credibility? How do we optimize the use of the observations?
What advice would you give to an aspiring interdisciplinary scientist?
Sometimes you look back and you realize how much of it was luck and random. But I do think that if you have a choice, and if you have latitude to choose an advisor, you shouldn't overlook finding someone who you feel is really looking out for you.
When I think about interdisciplinary work, I think about the interdisciplinary team. My impression sometimes is that, because everything is so interconnected, there is a temptation to want to learn about everything and become interdisciplinary yourself. That's important, but you become very valuable to teams when you have a unique tool or skill. It's a difficult needle to thread: having the breadth to have perspective, which is important for deciding which problems are important to pursue, but if you have a tool that is potentially unique and it's something that you're interested in doing, hone that tool because it will become very valuable.
What are your hobbies?
I don't know if I would call it a hobby, but New York is just an amazing place to walk around. My husband and I like to see spaces. We like to be in interesting places. During covid, we took up hiking, which we had never really done before. And I used to do ballet a really long time ago.
Interview conducted September 2022.