Associate Professor Lisa Alexander
The University of New South Wales
Find out Assoc. Prof. Lisa Alexander’s thoughts on what inspires her work in climate change research, the big questions facing researchers, and why she thinks AMSI Summer School is such a valuable experience.
Can you tell us about your work? What drives your interest in this field?
I work on understanding global and regional changes in climate extremes (think heatwaves, storms etc) in observations and models. This involves trying to work out how much of past changes are due to natural variations in the climate and how much is due to other factors such as human influence. I also look at projections of these events in the future based on a range of possible scenarios. The short story is that the amount of greenhouse gases we emit, will be crucial for determining how ‘extreme’ future changes will be. Our choices matter. I love this field because extremes have real societal impacts so it means that the results of my work can be very policy-relevant.
What are the most interesting “big questions” or challenges facing researchers in your area?
Questions include how changes in circulation and moisture content (background state) control extremes on a regional scale, and what processes underlie the spatial and temporal organisation of convective systems that lead to extreme rainfall and trying to understand the relative contributions from dynamics and thermodynamics to changes. Some other ‘big questions’ are relatively simple but equally difficult to answer e.g. are our observations actually good enough to answer the questions posed and how can we improve the simulation of extremes in climate models?
What are your favourite applications of your work?
The American Society of Actuaries are using a dataset that my colleagues and I developed to create a risk index related to changes in extreme weather (http://actuariesclimateindex.org/about). This was completely unintended as the dataset was developed primarily for other climate researchers. I also helped to develop software that is used to derive climate indices that can be used to help sectors such as health and agriculture. The software is primarily used in developing countries.
What are some other areas of your field that are particularly interesting to you?
I’m a data geek! Climate data are on the petabyte scale so it’s quite thrilling to be able to analyse that much information while trying to condense results into something meaningful that would benefit the field and other researchers.
Why did you become a mathematician?
It was my favourite subject at school so it was a natural undergraduate choice for me. While I also liked languages, I felt Maths would offer me much more choice once I graduated (and I think I was probably right).
Do you have any advice for future researchers?
Work hard, find your niche, collaborate, enjoy!
Deepening field knowledge and providing a networking platform, why are opportunities such as AMSI Summer School so valuable? What do you hope attendees take from your lectures?
Maths has so many exciting applications which you don’t always realise when you’ve got your head down and trying to pass exams. I personally have benefited so much from networking opportunities in the past to the extent that I wouldn’t be where I am today without those opportunities.
I would like lecture attendees to see that the subject they enjoy so much has real-world and important applications and how over the years many incredible mathematical tools, both simple and complex, have been developed that can address cutting-edge problems.
What do you consider your biggest achievement to date?
I was lucky enough to be a lead author on one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessments. There have been five of these reports since 1990 and they are written as policy-relevant documents based on an assessment of climate science literature for the world’s governments to develop their climate policies. I got to see governments in action and how policy decisions are made. It was an eye opening experience, extremely hard work at times but an amazing sense of accomplishment when the final report was released.
Associate Professor Alexander is delivering the Mathematics of Planet Earth topic with Dr Shane Keating at the 2019 Summer School.