First neuroscience, then finance and now climate change - Suzana Blesić, Marie Curie Fellow at Ca’ Foscari has explored disparate research fields with one purpose: analyzing and understanding complex systems. Her two-year project CLARITY has just concluded and it will hopefully provide a series of climate services that can calculate climate change hazards in order to plan and build more resilient urban infrastructure.
You had a very interesting career and academic path, how did you start with neurophysics and end up in the field of climate change?
It was not as clear to me at the beginning of my science career, but my path has been a series of natural, at least to me, steps in my attempt to understand the dynamics of various data recorded from different complex systems. Namely, I am a statistical physicist and now I can also call myself a data scientist.
The job of any statistical physicist is trying to understand and explain the behavior of systems with a large number of components, which in my case, at the beginning of my career, translated into an interest in open systems with a large number of components, that is, in complex systems. Out of these complex systems, I was instantly drawn to question what is hidden in the so-called neuronal code, the way nerve cells communicate within (any) nervous system, using constant electrical activity. Back then, I was lucky enough have an incredibly supportive mentor who had enough time to spend leading us, his masters and PhD students, thoughtfully through every step of the research process, and who was also was very eager to enter the area of neurophysics research himself.
I was additionally fortunate to find and be included in an already multidisciplinary group of neuroscientists, who kindly accepted that my expertise and knowledge could expand their studies. So this is how I started. After I finished my PhD, I began to realize that, in order to be able to comprehend the problem at hand better and, at the same time, ‘sharpen’ the mathematical and numerical tools I was using, I would have to try and change my perspective, that is, look at the similar behavioral problems of other complex systems. Thus I spent a brief time venturing into the field of neurology and studying hand movements of persons with pathological tremors, and then I ‘exited’ the field of neuroscience to investigate records from human-made complex systems – financial time series, and now records from climate systems. My current goal is to try and grasp as much universal characteristics of these systems as I can, so that afterward I might be able to see and understand the features of any of these systems that were not seen and/or explained before. Throughout my work so far, I have been lucky enough to closely collaborate with wonderfully curious, smart and incredibly kind researchers from various different scientific disciplines – medicine, biology, engineering, life sciences, economics, and now geosciences, meteorology, climatology, and public and environmental health - from whom I have learned far more than I had ever expected.
Could you tell us more about you project CLARITY?
CLARITY was conceived out of my interest to study the records from climate systems and my understanding that I should try and do this in collaboration with the top European (and international) experts in the area. Thus, CLARITY was proposed as an opportunity for a statistical physicist to collaborate with the group of climatologists at Ca’ Foscari, who were willing to extend climate investigations through the application of methods of the physics of complex systems and citizen involvement, in a city which belongs to one of the most exposed areas in terms of climate change, and in an academic environment internationally recognized for its expertise in the fields of climatology, statistics and environmental sciences. Our aim was to firstly utilize my experience in time series analysis and try to add to the understanding of climate records’ dynamics, and then to use these new insights as both inputs to and non-trivial tests of the climate modeling efforts developed by the group at Ca’ Foscari. Finally, we tried to make the most out of this systematic approach to complex climate data analysis and modeling, and use it to study some aspects of microclimate in the city of Venice. In order to do this last part, we engaged with the citizens of Venice and many visitors to the town, with the purpose of crowdsourcing climate data. We used easy wearable sensors, developed at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, which continuously measured the amount of solar ultraviolet UVA and UVB radiation, and employed them to record what is called the ambient, or static, outside UV index, and also a personal, individual everyday exposure to the solar ultraviolet radiation.
When we planned CLARITY we wanted to develop a program that could deepen our understanding of the complex interactions which contribute to climate change. In this way, we wanted to give a contribution to or to impact future implementation of efficient adaptation and mitigation strategies, particularly in regard to European commitment to the current Paris COP21 goals and leader-level involvement in the progress of Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, with the enduring European commitment to the improvement of the science-society interaction in mind, we stressed that our project’s community-oriented approach could bring forward and assist socially relevant and publically well-understood climate science. I think that we managed to achieve this set of goals. The scientific part of CLARITY did bring about results that can be used to improve current understanding of climate dynamics. The community-oriented part reached a wider audience and provided data-based evidence for broader public discussion on the ways to adapt to climate change, and could be used in future public planning and policy design.
Thus, the possible future applications of our project are twofold. Firstly, the examples in the use of methods borrowed from statistical physics to understand climate data can be replicated in other climate systems or datasets, in both their capacity to produce specific measures for data dynamics, and to use these measures as non-trivial tests of climate models accuracy. Secondly, the pilot of citizens engagement to crowdsource climate data could be expanded into an approach that provides for more efficient personalized climate services that engage end-users in all stages of data assessment.
In terms of climate change and related hazards, Venice is arguably one of the most vulnerable cities in the world. What has emerged so far from the study of climate data in Venice? In your opinion, is there any hope to "turn the tide" or is the fate of the city already sealed?
The research I did on the microclimatology of the city of Venice solely involved limited studies of exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation, and, to some extent, analysis of changes of local and regional temperature records, therefore I don’t think I can elaborate much on this issue. But what I know is what we all know in this area. After many relevant studies and reports, including the last IPCC report that just came out, the science of climate change in general, and of any region, is quite straightforward, with long set clear goals and recommendations. I cannot say if the fate of the city is sealed, I honestly think no one can, but I believe that we can try to change it for the better if we all, as citizens and residents, democratically decide that we should take action towards that goal now, and choose the strategies that we believe will get us there.
On the other hand, and quite unexpectedly to me, my results concerning exposure to the solar ultraviolet radiation have provided quite promising and even possibly exemplary results for discussions of future climate adaptation. Namely, I was lucky to find a group of tourists in Venice, who were kind enough to agree to wear the UV sensors and crowdsource UV exposure during their typical days in town. There was also a woman who is so in love with Venice that she visits every summer and spends days on end just walking around city. She brought us invaluable data that showed that one’s exposure to the solar UVR during the entire day spent outside within the old town is equal to less than half an hour of exposure that same person would get at the Lido beach, which means that the city of Venice, with its narrow streets and canals is a wonderful shield from not just the heat but also from the harmful exposure to the summer UV rays (you can see the data here).
In this way it appears that my preliminary results could add to the body of knowledge which studies the impact of the so-called street tunnels, as ways to mitigate effects of urban heat and exposure to high UVI. This is something that I plan to work on now.
Do you feel like there's any gender inequality in your research field?
Yes. And this is not just my feeling or something that stems out of my own experience as a female researcher, or experiences of my female colleagues that I know about, but is a fact corroborated by various analyses and statistics, laid out in numerous official reports, research and other sources. Data that we’ve known for decades now. I am what you would call a woman in STEM, and a woman in physics for that matter, both areas of research well known for their high underrepresentation of women. The consequences of this are, among other, that, like in other areas of science, and in academia in general, women and men, when entering work force, lack female role models and have limited or even no choice of female mentors. This is followed by various types of professional bias that we encounter throughout our careers, and that manifest themselves through conscious or subconscious, open or covert devaluation of our work, due to the stereotypes linking gender and science, or unexpected and logically unexplainable difficulties that we are supposed to meet whenever we find ourselves in reach of ‘higher management’ or ‘high power’ positions, like professorships or substantial grant awards. Women in science are also more likely than their male colleagues to find themselves in more than one unproductive collaboration during their careers, for they will, more often than not, be viewed as highly trained assistants rather than collaborators, or colleagues, that is, equals. This last fact is a partial cause to the well documented pay gap that women in science - or in any other professional sphere - experience, leading to the situation in which we are now, at the time when I write this, exactly after October 31st, the day that marked this year’s European Equal Pay Day, when, statistically, our male colleagues continue to earn their living wages while we, the women, start work the rest of the year for free.
Finally, my experience and the one of my female colleagues, the accounts in various reports and researches, and the official statistics, all speak about much more serious and disturbing instances of physical and psychological abuse, including sexual harassment at work, that women in science will probably endure at least once in their professional life – for example, the latest statistics of instances of sexual harassment that looked just into the experiences of women in high managerial positions in Europe indicate that it is likely that sheer luck and not any special skill is what would prevent this from happening to any women at any work place. All of this stands for white women like me, who to some extent share the privilege of their male counterparts, while the inequality multiplies in size and severity when gender intersects with other minority rank, such as ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability. So, things have to change radically, and soon.
Read more about the CLARITY project.