The Scientists - Dr. Inez Fung

The Scientists - Dr. Inez Fung on Violet Book Online (en-GB)
Photograph courtesy of Dr. Inez Fung
The Scientists - Dr. Inez Fung on Violet Book Online (en-GB)
How do we know what’s true? How do we solve seemingly impossible problems? How do we make real magic? From Covid-19 to the climate crisis, every aspect of public and private life right now reveals our relationship with science and nature. Author Sasha Sagan speaks to female scientists, in different disciplines, born on different continents, about their work, their philosophy, and how they navigate the old boys' club of the lab in the Violet Online series, The Scientists.
Sasha Sagan
Interview  Sasha Sagan

Dr. Inez Fung is a Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at University of California, Berkeley. She has been studying climate change for over 30 years, inspired by the weather events she experienced growing in Hong Kong in the 1950s.

Sasha Sagan: I read about how growing up in Hong Kong, you were fascinated by typhoons, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that and your relationship with the atmosphere as a child?

Dr. Inez Fung: Well, let me think, how do I answer that… Typhoons were the excitement of the summer. You don't have to go to school. So everyone gets very, very excited. Water coming in through the verandas, water coming in through the windows, and so for me, it was a time of excitement. You memorise all the typhoon signals and listen to the radio, and you wait for the typhoons to come. And then when there's no typhoon, I [would] go to the beach.

I had a fairly rigid upbringing— a lot of school and study— so those were the free times. I went to the beach, so I could swim out and float and look at the clouds. Before the typhoon comes, then the waves are different. It's long rolls of waves, and so you have a different kind of swimming. Instead of just flat, calm swimming in the bay, you have long waves. It's a different kind of floating in the water. And then after the typhoon has gone, then it's not very nice because the beaches, the sand is washed away and so barnacles on the rocks are exposed. And then you get cuts on your leg if you're not very careful.

That's a beautiful picture you've painted. Can you describe when you knew that you would study atmospheric science?

I didn't know I was going to study atmospheric science, and I think that's something that I'd like to emphasise: one thing leading to another. That I didn't plan to be a scientist when I was a child, I didn't know what a scientist was. And so it was just that I was doing mathematics and science in school, but that was all. I didn't think of [it as] a career. When people ask me what I thought I would be, I thought I would be a pianist.

Oh really?

Because I had never met a scientist, but then you go to concerts and there are pianists, right? Or [I thought I might be] a doctor, but then the family doctor [told me], “oh, you have to work too hard”. It was not that I wasn't capable — nobody ever said I was not capable, it was just the lifestyle may not be something that I would want. I didn't think about having a career as a scientist. I didn't think about anything, I just went to school. That was what I was good at. At MIT as an undergraduate in mathematics, there was a course for introduction to applied mathematics. The first term was about continuum mathematics. You know, traffic flow, waves and things like that. The second part was artificial intelligence. That was a long time ago. At the time computers were very new. I liked the elegance. So it was at MIT that they introduced me to study the atmosphere.

As you studied the atmosphere and the oceans and the earth and the interconnectedness of those elements, and the interconnectedness of meteorology and physics, environmental sciences, mathematics — how do all those fields inform each other?

Well, for me it's always the mathematics, the equations. So basically, you have the set of fluid equations for the atmosphere. For weather forecasting, you basically say here is the state of the atmosphere today, how will this evolve in the next five days? But what you don't know in mathematics is called a forcing term. What is causing them to move? To understand the forcing of the motion, you have to understand the greenhouse gases. And then to understand the greenhouse gases, then you have to do the CO2, and then I had to learn the biology. I had to learn the chemistry in the ocean and biology of ecosystem in order to understand how CO2 is cycled among the atmosphere, land vegetation and oceans. This way, we try to figure out how much CO2 emitted by combustion of fossil fuels could be taken up by the land and oceans and so how much CO2 would be left in the atmosphere to change the energy balance. The change in energy balance would in turn change the circulation, and that would change the weather and climate. In turn, that would alter the chemistry and biology. Everything is connected.

And so how does this interconnectedness inform your larger worldview?

Well, the world is just one big thing. A lot of what we do is to figure out [how] everything is connected. What are the critical connections? And it comes back to water. We're the only planet that we know of at the moment with all three phases of water. Water vapour is a greenhouse gas and it contributes to warming. The ice is melting — the ice reflects sunlight. So less ice means a darker surface and more absorption of sunlight.

Then you have the clouds. Clouds are sort of the elusive one. Low clouds can reflect a lot of sunlight, and if the clouds are higher they lose energy at a cooler temperature. The water is the balance in the climate system.

Then I go to the biology, I look at carbon, and whether trees live or die. If they die there's a lot of litter on the ground, and there's going to be decomposition, and so CO2 would go up. But whether they live or die depending on how the roots access water. It's not just surface, it's not just rainfall, because there are trees that are doing ok in the drought. There are fractures in the rocks, ok, so now I have to learn the geology, which is still school for me. I have to figure out where there are deep reservoirs of water for the trees.
Why should there be trees with tree rings of a thousand years — thousand-year-old trees — that passed droughts? They should be all dead. They must have a survival strategy that I don't know anything about. So water, to me, is the link. Water is crucial for life. We are a water planet.

And so much of our bodies are water.

It's everything. I see everything is connected but to have balance means that there is some competition. The competition between surface flow versus infiltration, tall clouds or shallow clouds, or liquid or ice, there's always a change and there's a balance. I see the balance as being crucial and the disturbance of the balance is difficult to restore. We're always looking for the restoring forces.

What has been the advancement or the revelation in your field over the last decade or two that has been the most thrilling, or the most enlightening in terms of your understanding?

I don't know how to answer that question. I mean, in 1990 [we pointed] out that the land, the terrestrial vegetation is sharing the burden with the oceans by absorbing some of the CO2 from fossil fuel combustion. When that came out in 1990, a lot of my friends called me up and said you just don't understand, you are new in the field. And I said I could be very much wrong, I am new in the field, but show me the data. And no one was able to show me the data. The ecologists said, 'it cannot be there because we would have found it'.

So was it just their own unwillingness to accept that they had overlooked something?

No, it happens every time something different comes out, to challenge what you think should be happening. With every new idea it takes us a while to say, 'what? Ok. Are you sure?’. 'How do you know?’. In 1990, it was based on a model. So it is totally important to question how good is your model. I said, 'this is what I know — I could very well be wrong’, but it's out there for everyone to say yes or no or, you know, to refine it. That's how science progresses.

The scientific method at work.

Yeah, but you have to have some thick skin while they call you up and say you're wrong.

"I didn't know I was going to study atmospheric science, and I think that's something that I'd like to emphasise: one thing leading to another ... I didn't plan to be a scientist when I was a child, I didn't know what a scientist was. And so it was just that I was doing mathematics and science in school, but that was all. I didn't think of [it as] a career. When people ask me what I thought I would be, I thought I would be a pianist." - Dr. Inez Fung

How does that strict adherence to the scientific method— testing ideas, seeing how they stand up to scrutiny— inform other parts of your life? Either politically or spiritually, how does that overlap with other elements outside of work?

That's very difficult. I don't like that question.

Ok, I'm sorry.

No, no, in the sense that I work in science and I'm totally data driven [But] there are certain things I accept. There's a certain level of trust that comes from experience rather than scientific data. I'm Chinese and so there's a certain blind faith, if you will, in the thousand years of Chinese medicine. Whether I have understood it or not. So it's not the scientific method that I can apply to Chinese medicine, but I acknowledge that there's a long history.

When you graduated from MIT with a doctorate in meteorology you were, I think, correct me if I'm wrong, only the second woman to ever do so?

From that department, not from MIT.

Right, from that department. And what was that like for you— working in that environment, studying in that environment?

I was at MIT as an undergraduate, there were very few women. You know, you look at the numbers, but in a sense it doesn't matter because I was in a dormitory of all women. It doesn't matter who's in class, you just sit there, you take your notes, and you take your exams, and you do your homework. The science is totally gender free. I was very lucky in graduate school — it was not an issue that I was a woman. We had lunch every day at 11.30 and then we go and have tea. I worked late with two other students — one a Brazilian, one an Indian — and we all lived in a dormitory. The only thing that felt different were the married students. They arrived early, they talked about lawnmowers and stuff like that — that's where I didn't feel like I belong, but the rest of us were all just trying to do our homework and trying to do our thesis and deal with our absentee professors. We were sort of like children banded together. Gender never entered into it. Everyone says MIT is tough, but I had the best time at MIT. Because the thing is that it's important to understand that what one needs is a very small group. You know, you call it the support group, but I call it my comrades. Now the official term is called intellectual companionship. You go in to the dark — research is going in to the dark, figuring out where the light switches are — and if you're afraid of the dark it is tough. So when you go into the dark, and things don't work it's nice to have friends who are going through the same thing, who understand. We [still] celebrate our birthdays together and we get together whenever we can. Some days I think that the emphasis on gender is not helpful. Maybe I'm too much of a nerd, right?

No such thing as too much of a nerd!

I was lucky. The first day at MIT I thought, here are women professors, here are older women students, so there never was an issue of whether a woman could do it or could not do it, you just study. That was it, you just study what you like. I don't think the professors acted differently to women. At least not the ones I encountered.

How do you think society would be different if the public was more scientifically literate? If we had a better scientific education from an early age?

Early education is very important, and curiosity, that science is not just rote learning. A lot of the newer projects that engage young people in the discovery part are very important. You learn to question, and you learn to figure out how to find answers and how to evaluate answers. You know, rather than just accept somebody telling you this is the answer. Science is not just naming all the planets. That could be an English class. That doesn't explain anything about the solar system.

What specifically do you wish that the average layperson understood about the climate, or about climate change, or really about anything else that you study?

Well, they know that the weather is changing. Older people remember that this is not the same way it was when they were children. What is difficult — and this is a cultural issue — is the acceptance of human causes of the changes, because acceptance of that implies a lot of things. Their priorities are jobs and education and health care, and climate is further down the list. So basically, the citizens have to understand that there is a short term and there is a long term. How do you have a future for the grandchildren? You know, you're working for the future of the children now, but we have to think about the grandchildren.

Right. So for people who are concerned about the environment, who do accept that climate change is caused by human actions — what should we stop doing immediately, or start doing immediately? What change can people make in their own lives today that will make a difference?

Well, I think the most important thing is to vote. A lot of big businesses, not all, are on board. Solar panels and wind energy, alternative energy, are becoming more prevalent and they can scale, and so a lot of the TV manufacturers, computer manufacturers, all those guys are much more energy conscious. You buy a refrigerator, you buy a washing machine, and you actually think about how much energy it uses. But you look at the Oroville Dam, you look at the sea level rise, you look at New York in the storm surge, Hurricane Sandy and all that stuff, and the drought and the this and the that, the extreme weather — the infrastructure to deal with climate change has to adapt to that change, and that's where it requires government. All of that takes time. And that's my concern: the readiness to adapt to that change.

So would you say that you're significantly more concerned since Election Day 2016?

Well, I live in California. California is much more proactive in terms of adapting. I remain hopeful that, [while] yes, there's a federal government and there's all that going on, the state governments are adapting. You know, it’s not just voters for the presidency, but local elections, they're important.

Yes, that's so true. So what gives you the most hope for the future?

The young people. They're open-minded, they're energetic, that's the future. It's in the young people.

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