How Being a Climate Researcher is Like Being a Kid

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Anita Raman, ’15

Mountains in Ethiopia's highlands. Credit: Ethiopian Highlands/Flickr

Mountains in Ethiopia’s highlands. Credit: Ethiopian Highlands/Flickr

When you were young, your family and teachers sought to teach you many things. They showed you how to tie your shoes and told you touching a hot stove will burn your finger. And like a good kid, you listened obediently without question, right?

Wrong.

You burned your finger anyway. You tripped many times on your shoelaces. You questioned everything and over time would come to conclusions on your own through investigation and trial and error.

For some people, their curiosity and need for proof follows them into their career. We call them researchers. For the past six months, I have had the chance to work at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society on a research project focused on temperature trends in Ethiopia.

I was given a set of raw data and asked to analyze it to see what was happening with daily minimum and maximum temperature in Ethiopia. This research is of particular interest to the malaria community, because an increase in minimum daily temperature would have repercussions on whether mosquitoes and parasites could survive and spread malaria.

In other words, higher minimum daily temperature equal more malaria-carrying mosquitoes equal potentially more cases of malaria.

In my academic career I have spent a lot of time being a consumer of climate studies, but this time I was asked to be a creator of a climate study. With my Climate and Society degree at my disposal and an unassuming mentality, I conducted the study by doing quality control of the data, plotting trends and assessing whether the trends are statistically significant. In other words, I had a chance to create knowledge through investigation. I had an opportunity to think like a kid.

Climate change...or not? Credit: Brad Lyon/IRI

Climate change…or not. Credit: Brad Lyon/IRI

One of the things that surprised me most during this study is the importance of quality control. For example, look at the sample graph below of temperature data from 1980-1998. An inexperienced eye would draw a red linear line and say “OMG this is climate change!”

But wait, let’s look closer. There is a huge change in slope between 1988 and 1990. What is causing that? Quality control is using statistical tests to look for the possibility of “breakpoints” such as these, which might be due to non-climatic factors such as a change in observer, instrumentation or change in station location, and adjust for these changes. Just like a kid doesn’t necessarily always trust the easiest answer, as climate scientists, we know that we need to sometimes dig deeper to find the answer to what the actual trends look like.

In the past six months, I learned to analyze my own data and in some locations found large temperature changes. Even though I was told that touching a hot stove would burn my finger, I did it anyway, and came to agree with other climate scientists through my own investigation. Climate change is having a colossal effect on the earth, and this data indicates that remote Ethiopian highlands are not exempt from these changes.

This was an interesting experience for me because it gave me a type of freedom to question and wonder in a focused academic way. This particular research on the Ethiopian highlands has never been done before, and so my professor and I had to be creative in how we assessed and interpreted the results.

The higher authority in this case to tell us that what we are doing is right or wrong is a peer-reviewing community, and if they disagree, we can start a discussion to find the right answers. Through this project I had a chance to think like a kid, curious and unassuming but with a Climate and Society degree to give me some tools. This data will be published in a Malaria Journal this year, with more technical description of the methodology and a clear explanation of our results.

After tripping on your shoelaces enough times, you think a little about previous knowledge handed down to you about shoe tying and keep trying through trial and error. Eventually you learn to tie a shoe perfectly and you write a paper about it. Such is the life of a researcher.

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