Isla Simpson, MPhys Astrophysics 2005

Research in Atmospheric Physics, Toronto


I graduated in 2005 with an MPhys in Astrophysics and continued with a career in physics research, although in a slightly different branch of physics - Atmospheric Physics. I really enjoyed the four years spent in St Andrews. I found that the relatively small size and friendliness of the department allowed for a lot of interaction with the academic staff and this led to me being given two opportunities to undertake summer research projects in the department. These opportunities were certainly important in encouraging, and allowing me to continue in research.

Although I thought I wanted to continue with physics research I was unsure of exactly which subject to pursue. The course on transferable skills for physicists allowed for an opportunity to undertake a literature review project on a subject of your choice and I decided to look into the effects of solar variability on the Earth’s climate. I became very interested in the subject and with climate change being a hot topic in the news, I decided that I wanted to switch subjects slightly from Astrophysics to Atmospheric physics. When looking into possible PhD projects, it became clear that there were many opportunities for physicists in climate science and meteorology, something that I was not aware of when starting out on my degree.

I was lucky enough to be offered a place in the Space and Atmospheric Physics group at Imperial College London working on a PhD project on the impact of solar variability on the location of the mid-latitude jet streams. I hadn’t done any classes in atmospheric physics before so the subject was completely new to me. However, I think the background training I received in St Andrews made the transition easier. In particular I was glad that I had opted for the Astrophysics degree option as the practical Astrophysics classes had given me a good grounding in scientific programming. Although I found that extremely challenging at the time, it is something which I realise now is essential for a career in most areas of physics research and I am grateful to the training I received in that in St Andrews for making the transition to a PhD student much easier than it could have been.

I thoroughly enjoyed the three and a half years I spent at Imperial as a PhD student. I was given many opportunities to travel and meet other researchers in the field while I was there, including a short placement at ETH Zurich as well as many conferences all over Europe. By the end I felt sure that I wanted to continue in research and knew that I wanted to stay in the field of climate modelling and atmospheric dynamics.
After graduating from Imperial I was offered a postdoc position in the department of Physics at the University of Toronto and spent over three years there. I was working in a group that, along with government scientists, was responsible for on of the state-of-the-art global climate models that is used for predicting future climate changes associated with ozone depletion and recovery and anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases as well as understanding the dynamics of climate variability and change.

From Toronto, I moved to New York City for a postdoc fellowship at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory which is part of Columbia University. I spent almost three years the working on trying to understand various aspects of model predicted changes in the future of our atmospheric circulation, with a particular focus on circulation changes that are likely to impact on regional hydroclimate.

I have now recently started as a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder Colorado within the Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory. NCAR is responsible for developing the Community Earth System Model (CESM) which is used by researchers around the world to investigate all sorts of aspects of earth system science with a particular goal of understanding how the planet is likely to change in the future. I work to understand dynamical mechanisms involved in variability and change of the large scale atmospheric circulation with a particular focus on determining the extent to which models, like CESM, can successfully capture the processes of relevance for the real atmosphere and to determine how they can be improved.

While life in academic research certainly has its ups and downs, I love the subject and I feel lucky be able to be able to spend my days researching something that I find interesting and can also have a direct relevance for society, while at the same time getting to travel the world and see new places.

BDS 8.11

Updated 11.15