GFDL - Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

About the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

(Continued from About GFDL)

Ramaswamy’s fascination with the sciences grew from the competitive culture he encountered early on, but also from passion imparted to him by his teachers. He attended an academically rigorous “English-medium” Methodist High School run by the Methodist Mission in the U.S. It was at this institution, headed by a strict principal hailing from North Carolina, that his scientific knowledge sprouted. “I learned my science from people who came as visiting staff from abroad, including the U.S. and the U.K., who were very inspiring and motivated me immensely in physics and chemistry,” he said. “I was very lucky to go to that school, be taught by fantastic teachers, and be exposed to top-level science education.” Ramaswamy described college as a “somewhat automatic track.” “Back in those times, you went because everyone said that was the best thing to do and it showed,” he said. “There was a certain knowledge that if you did well, you’d manage to get to a good profession. Accompanying that was also the joy of doing science, exploring, and being able to understand and explain observed phenomena.”

By the time Ramaswamy had completed his bachelor’s and progressed to his master’s degree in the Department of Physics at Delhi University, he had grown weary of hissomewhat theoretical academic undergraduate studies. “During the final year of my master’s, I started to think, ‘This physics is too theoretical,'” he said. “When is it going to help me solve some practical problems? We’re learning all about these elegant theories and laws, which were all very nice, but I wasn’t of the frame of mind where I had a crushing desire to pursue theoretical physics which happened to be the Department’s strength.”

This restlessness marked a period of self-discovery for Ramaswamy. During his last year of his master’s program at Delhi University, he decided to complete an independent dissertation in lieu of taking additional courses for credit. Ramaswamy’s dissertation focused on how nonspherical raindrops distorted and depolarized microwave transmission signals which impacted the quality of telecommunication signals in the 1960s and 1970s. Working on the project, he said, gave him the rare freedom he desired to pursue independent research. “That particular opportunity allowed me to wander off into the library and do my own reading, at my own pace, and in my own direction,” he said. “In other words, it put the responsibility on me, probably the first real excitement for me in scientific research endeavors.” Ramaswamy, along with his professor, submitted his completed thesis to different journals. Not really expecting to hear anything back, he took a job doing quality-control management, inspecting tires at the Dunlop rubber company in Madras — an occupation that, while stable and lucrative, quickly grew predictable and boring. “After some time, it became very mechanical,” he said. “After a couple of months, I said, ‘This is not my life.'”

Meanwhile, Ramaswamy’s thesis started to generate traction. Journal reviewer and scientist Petr Chylek liked it enough that he asked the future lab director to work on a Ph.D. with him in the U.S. Chylek also became his advisor, which forged a close working relationship between the two. “I found that Petr was a very prolific scientist,” said Ramaswamy. “And that inspired me to join him. He was very strong in coming up with novel ideas and in writing papers. He managed to convert conceptual ideas into workable solutions that had practical applications.” Chylek instructed Ramaswamy in optical physics, a task that “got him going,” and birthed his eventual interest in atmospheric physics and climate. “Most of the work I had done was in electromagnetic theory and optics. In my post-doc at NCAR, I started to move toward radiation, atmospheric physics, climate theory and climate modeling, and that’s how I landed at GFDL,” he said.

Outside GFDL doors, Ramaswamy spends his down time at the gym, though not as frequently as he would like, and also enjoys hiking in Colorado, California, the Poconos, and the New England states. In his college years, the lab director fantasized about becoming a cricketer, not a scientist. “At different points in life, you go through scenarios,” he said. “At this point in time, in my 50s, [if I weren’t a scientist] I’d have to say that I’d like to write books.” Ramaswamy’s literary tastes range from reading essays such as English writer Aldous Huxley’s writings to mystery novels of various sorts, including a long-standing fascination with Agatha Christie’s books. “One of the fascinating things about Agatha Christie’s novels is they play a lot on human tendencies, emotions and moods,” said Ramaswamy. “Although they were murder mysteries, the underlying thing was the state and responses of the human mind.”

Ramaswamy teaches atmospheric physics at Princeton University and has taught and mentored graduate students, whom he encourages to grasp the fundamentals well before pursuing intensive research into climate science. He finds students increasingly being drawn from and to multiple disciplines to address the pressing climate science and impacts questions. The lab director praised the interns, graduate students, post-docs, and young scientists who rotate through GFDL doors, as well as the full-time scientists’ congenial spirits. “A lot of excellent, in-depth science happens here, but there’s also the mood to relax, interact with fellow GFDL-ers and enjoy the scientific pursuit. This is invigorating and actually healthy for generating innovative ideas,” he said. And while the lab strives to make progress in the area of gender diversity through its graduate program with Princeton University (with approximately 50% female students), he said NOAA, in general, should improve its outreach to women and racial minorities.

One thing GFDL has been attempting in recent years is to increase the awareness of the broadening of the climate science field so that the next generation of scientists is readily equipped to see the opportunities for their careers. This is, for example, applied in the selection of the interns for summer assignments at GFDL. “Let’s change the way we plan our internships, so we can draw people from outside the traditional sphere and bring them here as interns in the summer , see if we can get them interested in pursuing this field, get them motivated so that they go on to perform top-class research,” he said. Indeed, some of the summer interns in recent years have gone on to do graduate research in the atmospheres and oceans.

Above all else, Ramaswamy said he derives “sheer joy” from leading GFDL to greater heights and remains hopeful about the lab’s sustainability and its position as a premier laboratory in climate modeling. “The lab has gone from strength to strength. Sometimes, it’s a little bit numbing,” he said, fighting back chuckles. “Can we increase in strength? The answer has to be, ‘Yes, we will and must continue our pioneering ways to push the envelope of the frontiers of climate science and derive outcomes that prove to be of benefit to society.'”