Q&A with Prof. Geeta Persad PhD '16

Tuesday, Nov 17, 2020
by Supriya Singh, Class of 2023

Geeta Persad completed her PhD in Atmospheric and Oceanic Studies from Princeton in 2016. She was selected for an HMEI-STEP Graduate Fellowship, which allowed her to pursue the Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy certificate at the School of Public and International Affairs.

Geeta is now an Assistant Professor of Climate Science in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas, Austin. Between graduating from Princeton and her latest appointment, Geeta held a joint position as a Senior Climate Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a Research Associate at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University.

Below in an interview with Princeton University undergraduate Riya Singh, Geeta describes how her experience in the STEP program shaped her interdisciplinary approach to climate research and linked her policy and science interests to increase the impact of her work.


Q: What motivated you to pursue a certificate in the STEP program?

I actually chose Princeton in part because of the HMEI-STEP program. I had always been interested in climate science, but toward the end of my undergraduate years, I realized that I wanted to have a graduate experience that would let me pursue scientific research while also studying its policy implications and societal impact. I applied to Princeton hoping that STEP would be the fertilizer for my cross-disciplinary thinking and it definitely turned out to be that, far and above what I could have expected.

Q: What was your research project centered on during your fellowship?

My dissertation research in the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences program focused on atmospheric aerosols, which are particle air pollutants that are produced by most human industrial activities, like transportation, fossil fuel combustion, and agricultural burning. My PhD work focused on understanding how these pollutants impacted the climate system and how countries’ emissions patterns have changed over the last several decades. My HMEI-STEP project added a policy dimension to look at how international trade had affected the location of these emissions in the past and what that meant for our assumptions about how emissions might evolve in the future. I studied the case of international trade impacts on China’s emission of black carbon aerosols – the dark component of soot that has a huge effect on local climate and amplifies global warming.

Q: Tell us more about your career after graduation.

I was in a joint position between the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford and the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the common theme between these was climate modelling and prediction. At the Carnegie Institution, we used simulation tools to deepen our understanding of the climate system and tried to develop usable information about how climates might change in the future, especially as patterns of emissions vary across different parts of the world. We mapped who is feeling the effects of these changes in terms of climate and air quality and we tried to translate that to policy-relevant metrics of how much specific places can benefit from clean air policies. My work at the Union of Concerned Scientists applied that climate modelling expertise to water resource questions in the Western US, especially in California where the complex and highly managed water infrastructure presents unique challenges for modelling uncertainty. We also advocated for policymakers to use that information to make plans based on the future predictions about the water cycle rather than on past data.

Q: Are the skills you developed while working on your research still meaningful or useful to you now in your career and further research?

Absolutely! Through the HMEI-STEP fellowship, I learned some analytical tools that were more focused on social science and policy that I might not have been exposed to in a purely scientific PhD. This includes integrated assessment models that are really the backbone of how the social science, economic, and scientific communities think about the future trajectory of human emissions, which is a crucial input for the climate modelling work that I do in the physical sciences. Through coursework at SPIA, I studied game theory and economics, which helped me learn the vocabulary and concepts used in this field. Getting to know graduate students in the MPA and MPP programs allowed me to start thinking about physical science questions more from the perspective of how a policymaker, economist, or historian might be thinking about them. It was really fascinating to me and opened up new avenues of scientific inquiry.

Q: What are some of your favorite memories from your time at Princeton?

I had the opportunity, through the Princeton Energy and Climate Scholars Group to experience the UN Rio+20 Conference in Brazil, which was phenomenal. We got to go to Brazil, for one, which was amazing, but also being in the center of such a vibrant international policymaking apparatus was inspiring. We were able to contribute something as well, by running a panel on interdisciplinary education in the environmental realm. It really felt like we were active participants, and experiences like that have given me more confidence being in interdisciplinary spaces. I feel like I can actually make meaningful contributions, thanks to having actually done that in graduate school, which is really rare.

Q: What do you believe are the most important things for environmental policy students to learn while preparing to become researchers or practitioners?

As I continued in my career, I had a dual appointment between an academic institution and a science advocacy organization, where I was working directly with decision makers and the government. I’ve come to realize that what is missing from a lot of education, and what I feel is important for this generation to pick up, is an understanding of how the public and decision makers are using the work that comes out of academic institutions, especially in the environmental field. The way that information is actually used is very different from what we envision as academics, being one step removed from the people on the ground. I’ve observed that asking the same scientific, social or policy question in slightly different ways can help you align more closely with a decision that someone actually has to make, and unless you are open to that change, your work is not going to have as much impact as it could.

I also think it’s incredibly important for anyone in environmental policy or planning to understand climate change. There isn’t a single decision that a city, state, national government or corporation is making right now that is not influenced by climate change. However, most people in those sectors have no exposure, through no fault of their own, to climate data and how it is produced. If we can find a way to make that type of information more accessible to people across different professions, it would make a huge difference for climate adaptation and mitigation worldwide.

Q: Now that you are an Assistant Professor yourself, how do you feel your connections with professors and advisers through the HMEI-STEP program influenced you?

It was a huge influence! When I got to know Michael, who was my STEP adviser, I remember thinking ‘I want to be Michael Oppenheimer when I grow up.’ I really admire the trajectory he had when working in the science advocacy space and his ability to sit in more academic settings and help connect fundamental new knowledge with policy applications. Michael was very helpful in showing me how to bridge those two worlds, identifying positions, making connections and advocating for me, so I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for that. Also, through the Climate Futures initiative and Communicating Uncertainty Project, I met many other faculty from HMEI, PIIRS and SPIA who were all incredibly welcoming of me participating in their discussions.

Whenever I attended a STEP seminar with the other PhD students, I felt like an intellectual firecracker had gone off in the room! There were so many smart, extroverted and inclusive people in the space that made it such a stimulating environment to be in. This helped me feel comfortable engaging with people academically at that level and outside of my home discipline. We were able to share how each of our disciplines thought and talked about things, which has been tremendously beneficial as I try to carve my own unique path in science research. I’m looking forward to building new relationships and bring what I learned at STEP to my work at UT Austin!