Beyond Undergrad Physics: A Physicist’s Path into Climate Science

Share This:



Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices

Beyond Undergrad Physics: A Physicist’s Path into Climate Science


Samantha Staskiewicz, SPS Alumni, The Pennsylvania State University

Samantha Staskiewicz. Photo courtesy of the SPS National Office.As we enter another election season, I’m fascinated by the way our society has turned climate change into a political controversy. Because there is no controversy. Climate change is real.

As a scientist, I’ve never doubted the validity of climate change, and I personally think it is the biggest challenge facing our generation. In fact, solving the climate crisis should be at the forefront of the national agenda, because we will not be able to address other issues if our planet becomes uninhabitable and our species ceases to exist.

Many will call me dramatic; they’ll say that we won’t even be alive for the inevitable crumble of humanity, so why should we care? But the truth is, we might not be alive for it, but people around the world are already facing the consequences of the climate crisis, and things will only get more dangerous for the next generations.

A common argument for not taking climate change seriously is that our planet has gone through extreme environmental change over the centuries, and today’s rising temperatures are no different. But we’ve only recently started to emit billions of tons of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels, which directly links to the planet’s increasing temperatures. These emissions disrupt the natural energy balance of Earth’s system by trapping heat in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is one of the leading gases that contributes to this effect, and over the past 150 years, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have increased from 280 parts per million to over 400 parts per million.1

Increasing atmospheric temperatures lead to several other types of environmental consequences, including but not limited to changes in precipitation, melting sea ice, sea-level rise, and increased droughts, wildfires, floods, and other types of natural disasters. This eventually leads to the decline of ecosystems as environments become uninhabitable for their traditional animal populations, and this could happen to places inhabited by humans too. Furthermore, an increase in abrupt natural disasters also puts lives at risk. Much damage has already been done, but there are actions that we can take as a society to limit our emissions and the effects we have on our climate.

While any individual can take steps toward decreasing his or her environmental footprint—including carpooling, recycling, and being conservative with the use of environmental resources—as physicists, we have the opportunity to do even more to combat climate change.

When I was an undergraduate physics major, I struggled with deciding what I wanted to do after college. Starting out, I was aware of only the main physics subdisciplines—topics like astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and condensed matter. But the more I learned about all of the doors that physics can open, the more I realized that, despite not being “traditional” physics paths, fields like climate science, environmental science, the geosciences, oceanography, and meteorology have a physics component to them.

About a year into my undergraduate career, I was introduced to a professor in our department who conducted research on cirrus cloud ice crystals, which are some of the first objects that sunlight interacts with when it enters the atmosphere. Understanding the geometry of cirrus cloud ice crystals is essential to improving climate models. The more accurately the model reflects reality, the better our predictions will be. With improved predictions, we as a society can better prepare for the future and design solutions to different climate-related issues. I was really interested in the impact of this professor’s research and decided to join his research group for the next three years of college. I am forever grateful for this experience because it led me to work toward a concentration in geophysics, and it got me more interested in atmospheric science.

My entire undergraduate research experience inspired me to pursue a climate-focused graduate degree. I am currently a graduate student in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science at Penn State University, where I study the atmospheric effects of melting sea ice. It amazes me how much physics I use on a day-to-day basis—and how much my physics degree has prepared me to work on solving problems in atmospheric science.

As physics majors, we have problem-solving skills that qualify us to impact a multitude of areas. I believe that if more physics students got involved in environmental-related fields, we could be one step closer to combating climate change.

I strongly encourage the physics world to branch out further into the field of climate science. This could include conducting climate-related research in physics or a related field, engaging in science policy efforts, or communicating the science that is being done around the world. As scientists, we also have the ability to understand scientific dialogue, and we need more people to communicate scientific results on climate studies to decision makers and the public. If any of these ideas appeals to you, I encourage you to explore career options in climate science and see what you can do to make a difference with your knowledge of physics.

1. “IPCC, 2014: Summary for Policymakers,” in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, eds. O. Edenhofer, R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, et al., Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2014,

More from this department

Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices