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Columbia Engineering Student Spotlight

Note: This piece, written by Jesse Adams, originally appeared on the Columbia Engineering webpage as part of the "Student Spotlight" series, found here: https://engineering.columbia.edu/student-profiles/zane-martin


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Setting sail last fall on a research expedition to the remote western Pacific, atmospheric scientist Zane Martin MS '16 MPhil '18 PhD'20 ended up collecting more than just reams of data: he also developed deeper insight into his discipline.


“Watching the weather, the water, and the sky, I found my curiosity and imagination engaged in new ways,” said the Columbia Engineering PhD candidate in applied mathematics and atmospheric science. “As the ocean stretched out on all sides, why were there storms dotting in some places and not others? What set the height and base of the clouds? How did rain coming from storms interact with the ocean, or the wind whipping off the white caps feed back into the atmosphere? It all gave a sense of reality to work that can sometimes seem abstract when viewed on a laptop screen.”


Martin headed out to sea with his advisor Adam Sobel, professor of applied physics and of earth and environmental engineering, and fellow researchers from other universities and research centers. Funded by the federal Office of Naval Research, the expedition aimed to gather information about the complex interactions between the upper ocean and lower atmosphere, and begin applying new data to improve weather forecasts and climate models.

“Despite being someone who typically works on numerical models, I spent many, many hours either dropping various probes and sensors off the ship or operating winches to pull them back up,” Martin said. “It gave me a new respect and appreciation for the methodologies and challenges of gathering data in the field—which requires a unique blend of intense and meticulous planning and preparation, an ability to adapt on the fly and handle setbacks with humor and grace, a willingness to let curiosity sometimes dictate decisions, and above all tenacity, passion, and desire to understand the natural world.”


During a rare bit of free time, he recalls an unusually cloudless night when he got to join Sobel on deck for a spell of stargazing.


“It was tremendously peaceful, surreal, and humbling to feel just how small I was, and to appreciate how beautiful the ocean and stars are at night,” Martin said. “I remember thinking how audacious people are, and also how amazing, that we try and in many cases actually manage to measure the oceans and the atmosphere and the stars—things on sweeping scales that dwarf us and challenge our ability to imagine. I had a crystal-clear feeling that our small experiment, our small ship, with its radars and sensors and weather balloons, was connected and contributing to this broader scientific endeavor that spans national and political divides and links us to the past and future.”


Back on land, Martin specializes in modeling Earth’s tropical atmosphere, particularly an important but little-understood phenomenon known as the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO)—a recurring large-scale fluctuation in winds, surface pressure, rain, and more in the Indian and Pacific oceans—that is often considered the holy grail of tropical meteorology. Better understanding the MJO promises to enable better predictions and preparations for extreme weather events around the globe.


“Scientifically, the oscillation is a real mystery,” he explained. “It’s a phenomenon for which we don’t have an agreed-upon theory, and the theory we have for everything that looks kind of similar to it doesn’t seem to apply directly. It’s likely, then, that a breakthrough in understanding the MJO will be accompanied by some fundamental new way of thinking about the tropics.”


Growing up in the Berkshires, Martin was always passionate about protecting the environment, but hadn’t considered how it intersected with his interest in numbers. At a conference he attended as a math major at Williams, he listened in on a session about “The Mathematics of Planet Earth” that altered his entire outlook.


“I was in some sense blind-sided: it really hadn’t occurred to me that there was such a clear overlap between my mathematical skills and my increasing feeling that climate change was the big problem of my generation,” Martin said. “I started to feel a sense of how could I not work on something this important? I’d taken a few applied courses so knew I enjoyed real-world problems, and started thinking more seriously about applied math with a climate focus.”


After a yearlong stint as a legal assistant exploring his interest in public policy, Martin was ready to return to STEM. Looking into graduate programs, Columbia quickly became his top choice, drawn by the diverse interdisciplinary community of scientists, applied mathematicians, and engineers studying weather, climate and broader atmospheric processes. He joined Columbia Engineering’s department of applied physics and applied mathematics in 2015 and soon began working with Sobel and research scientist Shuguang Wang, who have become his mentors.


This summer, he traveled to Trieste, Italy, for a two-week workshop on modeling a phenomenon known as convective aggregation, and spent September in Costa Rica with the Organized Tropical East Pacific Convection (OTREC) field campaign intensively researching convection in the east Pacific and western Caribbean. After receiving his PhD sometime next year, Martin plans to continue his atmospheric research and start teaching the next generation of climate scientists. Over the long run, he hopes to contribute to both understanding and mitigating global warming.


“To the extent that it’s appropriate as a scientist, I’d love to participate more directly at the national or international level on work relating to limiting the impacts of climate change,” he said. “Professor Sobel is a role model in that regard, connecting with many different aspects of the field, seeing problems from different dimensions, and communicating with a wide range of audiences. He’s helped me recognize the large role academics can play beyond writing papers and publishing.”

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