Faculty Spotlight: Suzana Camargo, Plasma Physicist Turned Extreme Weather Expert
When she came to Columbia, she started a research project on hurricanes that she thought would last a year. More than 20 years later, hurricanes are still her main area of interest.
Suzana Camargo’s eminent career has spanned continents and fields of study. Originally from Brazil, Camargo studied physics at the University of São Paulo before venturing to Germany to earn her PhD from the Technical University of Munich and conduct research at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics. After several years studying plasma physics, Camargo made the bold decision to move to New York City and join Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society in 1999. Camargo began her work with a project on hurricanesーa project she thought might last a year or so. The rest is history, she says. More than 20 years later, Camargo’s main research focus is still hurricanes.
Suzana Camargo currently teaches “Sustainability in the Face of Natural Disasters” in the M.S. in Sustainability Science program, offered by the School of Professional Studies in partnership with the Columbia Climate School.
Did you always know you were interested in atmospheric sciences? How have your past experiences shaped your research interests?
Growing up, I always loved mathematics. Then, as a teenager I got interested in programming, which was quite novel at the time. In a family with many engineers, engineering seemed the natural pathway, but it didn’t seem a good fit for me, so I ended up studying physics. All my degrees (BSc, MSc, PhD) are in physics, which gave me a great foundation to explore many different areas. All my research starting as an undergraduate, throughout my PhD and postdoc, and until a position as an early career professor in Brazil, was in plasma physics — in particular, turbulence in plasma physics. Thanks to that, I had expertise in fluid dynamics, programming, modeling, and turbulence. This skill set made it possible to transition to research in atmospheric sciences and climate when I started at Columbia University.
What made you transition from researching plasma physics to atmospheric sciences?
I started working at Columbia University in 1999. At that time, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) was just starting and they gave me an opportunity to work there and start doing climate research. The transition between fields was not easy, as I had a lot to learn, whereas I was already an established scientist in plasma physics. But, it was the optimal choice for my family, given that we decided to move to the US and at the time, there were significant cuts in plasma physics, which made it impossible for me to find a position in my original field. After a year at IRI, I started working on a project on hurricanes, thinking that would be my focus for a year or so. The rest is history, as they say. More than 20 years later, my main research focus is still hurricanes. It’s a fascinating topic and I have enjoyed researching topics that are directly relevant for society.
You joined Columbia in 1999. How has your research focus changed over the years?
The first project that I led in this field was to develop a seasonal forecast for tropical cyclones (hurricanes, typhoons) using climate models. With time, I expanded my focus to work on the influence of climate on tropical cyclones on different time-scales, from subseasonal (2-4 weeks) to longer-term climate change, including even paleoclimatology. I have also been involved in studying other extreme events (e.g. precipitation), various climate phenomena, such as monsoons, and even the influence of volcanoes on climate. In the last few years, our group has been focusing on climate risk, including not only the hazards, but also taking into account social vulnerability and economic impacts.
You are an academic ambassador of the American Meteorological Society Committee for Hispanic and Latinx Advancement (CHALA) committee since 2021. Could you share a bit more about this group’s mission and your involvement?
As I am originally from Brazil, it’s important to me to be sure that Hispanic and Latinx scientists are represented and supported in the US. I also like to keep up my connections with Brazilian scientists and make sure to interact with them in conferences. Therefore, it was a natural fit to participate in the CHALA Board on Representation, Accessibility, Inclusion, and Diversity as an academic ambassador. This committee has been doing amazing work, such as helping create Spanish weather translation resources, so that the US Weather Service can issue weather advisories in English and Spanish languages easily, which is very important given the large US Spanish-speaking population. I am a co-author with some other members of the CHALA committee on the first paper analyzing the statistics on the current population of Latinx students in US academic institutions that offer programs in atmospheric sciences. There is a lot of work to be done to attract more Latinx studies to this field!
Why should students take your course? What will they take away from the course?
“Sustainability in the Face of Natural Disasters” provides students with the foundation of many aspects of disasters, giving special focus to understanding the hazards that cause them, but also discussing other important aspects, such as disaster preparedness and response. I hope that the students will feel ready to analyze the level of risk due to different hazards that could affect them, in particular if questions arise on their job. I hope they will also feel prepared to make important decisions regarding risk in their own lives, from where they decide to live to whether they should evacuate due to the occurrence of a hurricane.