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Six Questions with: Dr Cécile Penland

Six Questions with: Dr Cécile Penland

Cécile Penland is a Physical Scientist at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Colorado and was a Visiting Fellow on the Mathematical and Statistical Approaches to Climate Modelling and Prediction programme in 2010.

When did you become first interested in mathematics and what keeps your interest fresh?

I became interested in physics as an undergraduate and, of course, mathematics is the language of science. I was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to mathematics for its own sake; it was not until I was a physics graduate student that my interest really took off. The beauty of stochastic processes and its multiple calculi completely seduced me, and it still does.

Could you tell us a little about your career path so far and what your current research involves?

I got my 1984 doctorate in physics studying sound propagation through stochastic media. After that I made the switch to climate studies, working as a post-doc at the Max-Planck-Insitut für Meteorologie and at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. As half of the chaotic two-body problem (i.e., the dual career couple), my husband and I spent some time in the Los Angeles area, where I spent one year as a part-time instructor (California State University at Long Beach) and after which I had another, very fruitful post-doctoral position with Prof. Michael Ghil at UCLA. In 1989, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, where I have been working first as research faculty at the University of Colorado and then as a civil servant with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Also in 1989, my husband, Professor Alejandro García, became a physics professor at San José State University in San José, CA.

My work at NOAA involves forecasting and diagnosis of El Niño dynamics, as well as the development of stochastic methods for diagnosing and forecasting multiscale climate processes.

What achievements are you most proud of?

I am very proud of my half in maintaining a good marriage while living 1000 miles away from my husband, and I am grateful for my husband's half of that effort.

I am also very proud of work involving Linear Inverse Modeling (LIM), which is a statistical-dynamical data analysis approach that grew out of efforts begun with researchers at MPI Meteorologie. Two projects, one very short and an ongoing project that has lasted two decades, have resulted from this method. In 1991, Alejandro García and I used LIM to diagnose the macroscopic dynamics in output from a molecular dynamics simulation. The result was the fluctuating Navier-Stokes equations, including a statistical description of the random fluctuations due to individual molecular collisions.

The other, major project involving LIM has been the forecasting and diagnosing of El Niño dynamics. Somewhat surprisingly to some, much of El Niño sea surface temperature dynamics can be described as a simple multivariate linear process driven by stochastic forcing. The efforts either to upset or extend this paradigm have greatly contributed to the understanding of El Niño and to its role in global climate change. Dr Prashant Sardeshmukh has been an invaluable friend and colleague all these years.

How do you achieve a balance between your work and homelife?

Balance? Well, one needs to remember that there are fluctuations around a successful balance. Sometimes one concentrates on work and puts in very long hours for a few weeks, and sometimes one takes several weeks of vacation. When my husband and I spend time together, which is once or twice a month,we drop everything and pay attention to each other. It's also important to have social contacts outside of science, math, and even academia. I belong to a community chorus and to a dance group, both being organizations that perform at retirement centers and for various charitable causes. And I play with my cat (Mr. Pussycat Fuzzybutt Bennett) a lot.

What advice would you offer to young women who are just starting their careers in the mathematical sciences?

Always remember that truth comes out eventually, so when the going gets rough (and it will), be assertive but patient. Don't take yourself or anybody else too seriously. Credentials can be evidence of achievement, but they're not a proof. There is still a lot of prejudice around, and when younger members of your gender/minority group/sexual orientation/whatever don't understand or appreciate the sacrifices you've made to facilitate their careers, it's the highest compliment they can pay to the advances you have helped make. Work hard; play hard; love hard.

Has your visit to the Newton Institute been fruitful?

It has indeed! My visit has spawned the foundation of two collaborations that I expect to be very fruitful in the future, and I have been given the opportunity to expand my views on how certain problems can be treated. Further, my visit to INI allowed me to visit other institutions and universities in Exeter, Reading and Oxford at the invitation of other participants of the INI workshops. Finally, the personal contacts I have found at INI have been both useful and pleasurable. My visit to INI was delightful.

University of Cambridge Research Councils UK
    Clay Mathematics Institute London Mathematical Society NM Rothschild and Sons