By: Debananda S. Ningthoujam
Scientists come in various kinds. Women scientists are no different. Some female scientists are microbe hunters, some others are gene hunters, yet some more are bone detectives. They may be skygazers or deep sea explorers or explorers of ‘inner space’ (brain). Some fearless types even probe the mysteries of volcanoes.
Today we shall discuss about one pioneering female climate scientist (climatologist). She has not only made pathbreaking contributions in her chosen field, climatology, but also took active part in influencing climate change and science policies in the US.
She is indeed a climatologist par excellence; Dr Fung has come a long way from her humble beginnings in Hong Kong to becoming the first Director of the centre for Atmospheric Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB).
Inez Fung had her humble beginnings in Hong Kong. She was born there on April 11, 1949. She grew up in Hong Kong Island located in South China Sea. She loved to swim in the bays and look at the clouds. She did her schooling in Hong Kong.
Political turmoil prompted her parents to send Inez and her siblings to send to US for further studies. She thus went to the US after completing high school education to attend Utica College, New York.
She shortly transferred from Utica College to enter MIT to do higher education in Mathematics. She earned her S.B. (Bachelor’s degree) in Applied Math in 1971.
After earning her Bachelor’s degree, she decided to pursue her graduate (PhD) degree in meteorology. She earned the Sc.D. (doctorate degree) in 1977. Inez was the second woman to earn a PhD in meteorology from MIT. Her thesis was on “The Organization of Spiral Rainbands in a Hurricane” and it was completed under the supervision of Prof Jule Gregory Charney.
She is married to Jim Booth, an oceanographer and a marine chemist.
Career and Contributions
After earning her graduate (doctoral) degree, Fung joined James Hansen’s group at the Goddard Institute of Space Studies at Columbia University in New York. He asked her to do climate modelling to find out where all the CO2 released from fossil-burning and other anthropogenic sources go. But before the work could start, Hansen died. However, Inez pursued the climate studies in earnest. At that time, carbon sinks were not accounted. She found out from her modelling studies that CO2 released into the atmosphere accounted for just 50% of the anthropogenic emissions. Where ‘the missing carbon’ went, she wondered.
Fung thought CO2 accounting were incomplete without considering the carbon sinks. She said, it was like “trying to make a budget by looking at your income without considering your expenses”. She started thinking seriously about the global carbon budget. This is a very complex process: you can’t create droughts, floods, storms or hurricanes in the lab. So she had to simulate them by creating models and studying them on the computer with complex mathematical calculations. And she was the right person for this job. Even at high school in Hong Kong, she has been hooked by two passions. One is mathematics-she has always been a math whiz kid from a very young age . The other is weather. She used to monitor Hong Kong harbour lights for any warning of typhoons. Surprisingly, she has always been fascinated by hurricanes and typhoons. The only change is, back then, ‘it meant school will be cancelled’, and today it means she can predict the future of climate in our planet and do something towards implementing appropriate policy initiatives.
She learnt carbon dynamics and climate modelling on her own, from scratch. After marrying Jim Bishop, a marine chemist, she often used to go on hiking and campfire expeditions with other scientists. She used to interact with colleagues, asking questions about carbon sinks and climate and taking notes meticulously. In her doctoral studies she used mathematics and fluid dynamics to explain the spiral shapes of hurricane rain bands and her thesis got the best thesis award.
Her research allows her to connect her models with CO2 measurements; she says local enhancements on carbon absorptions by plants(due to warming leading to enhanced photosynthesis) will be counterbalanced by droughts on global scale(leading to reduced carbon uptake). She predicts hotter and more frequent droughts in tropical countries due to climate change.
Her efforts will get a boost when the orbiting CO2 observatory-2(OCO-2) will be launched in 2013, allowing her and other climate scientists to increase the near-earth CO2 observations from about 100 to a 1,000,000 observations every two weeks, that too, at all possible altitudes.
She is emphatic that scientists must communicate more with the public, she says, “we do a lot of talking to one another…we are not broadcasting our findings on the right wavelength”.
She has been a principal architect of using large-scale climate modelling and numerical approaches to represent the geographical and temporal variations in the sources and sinks of carbon. Her recent studies on climate modelling predict diminishing capacities of land and oceans to store carbon, leading to accelerated global warming.
Inez is currently Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB). Concurrently she is also Director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment.
Dr Fung also studies the transport of dust particles and their impact on the global climate. She also worked as a leader of a research program called HydroWatch, which was aimed at analyzing the global hydrological cycles.
Awards and honours
Between 1977 and 2007, Dr Fung achieved 19 major accomplishments. Some major ones are:
1) 1977: Rossby Award for outstanding thesis of the year, MIT
2) 1987: NASA Peer Award(also got it again in 1993)
3) 1989: NASA Exceptional Achievement Award
4) 1994: Fellow, American Meteorological Society
5) 1996: Fellow, American Geophysical Union
6) 2001: Member, National Academy of Sciences
7) 2004: Roger Revelle Medal
She was the co-author of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report entitled Climate Change Science published in 2001. This report was very influential and it made President Bush to agree that ‘global climate change is a serious issue’ in a speech delivered on June 11, 2001.
In 2004, she was conferred the Roger Revelle Medal for, “outstanding accomplishments or contribution towards the understanding of the earth’s atmospheric processes”. She was the first woman and 2nd UCB faculty to get the Revelle medal since its inception in 1991.
In 2005 she was named one of ‘Scientific American 50’.
She received the world Technology Network Award for the Environment in 2006.
In 2007 she was awarded the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Distinguished Achievement Award.
She contributed to the work of the UN Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) that led to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC in 2007.
In 2006 Fung joined with 17 other climate scientists to file amicus curiae to support the need for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate CO2 emissions.
She loves to go to concerts and movies. She likes long walks, playing the piano, reading science fiction, cooking big meals, and dreamed about swimming in Bay of California when she reached age 60.
“I used to think that clouds were just clouds, she says, and continues, “I never dreamed you could write equations to explain them-and I loved it.”
Memberships of Boards and Scientific Societies
She is a fellow of both the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
She was elected as member of the prestigious scientific society, Academia Sinica (Taiwan) in 2010.
Dr Fung was appointed a member of the President’s Committee on the National Medal of Science by Barack Obama on September 17, 2010.
On November 10, 2012 President Barack Obama appointed her as a member of the National Science Board.
Today Fung has travelled a long way from her humble beginnings in Hong Kong to reach the pinnacle of scientific career in the US. Despite their individual differences, certain traits seem to be common among trailblazing scientists: passionate love of the chosen field, fierce independence, hard work, non-conformism, and tremendous courage. Young students of science may take inspiration from the wonderful life of this pioneering scientist and take the courage to enter a career in science in a chosen field in which she or he is passionately interested.