Ethan Coffel, PhD Candidate in Earth and Environmental Sciences
Where did you grow up?
Iowa City, IA.
What drew you to your field?
I liked tornadoes and occasionally chased them in Iowa. I also liked science. But I didn’t put the two together until I had just about graduated from college and decided to apply to graduate programs in climate science rather than in computer science. I would attribute my change of heart to the NOAA Hollings Scholarship, a spectacular program that has converted many undergraduates to environmental science.
How would you explain your current research to someone outside of your field?
I study extreme weather, what causes it, how it’s changing, and what impacts it has on people. I have spent most of my PhD work on heat waves. Heat seems like a not-so-fancy topic, but as it turns out, extreme temperatures have huge effects on society: They kill people, damage infrastructure, and hurt crops. They also, importantly, make water evaporate faster, which leaves less of it for us. Heat is relevant, as we are all going to experience a lot more of it in the future. My work has tried to understand the impacts of rising temperatures, and how we can adapt to them.
Is there a common misconception about a topic in your field that you wish you could correct?
The fact that some gasses in the atmosphere trap heat has been understood since the 1800s, and projections of global temperature change made in the mid-twentieth century have turned out to be quite accurate. We understand climate change, and have the technology to reduce our emissions, but a dedicated and decades-long effort by a small number of people to spread doubt about the credibility of climate science and the need to respond to climate change has set us back and caused enormous harm.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I flew in a microgravity plane once. That was fun, and I doubt I'll top it. Four friends and I started a team to enter the NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program in our sophomore year of college. In zero gravity, bubbles don't detach from surfaces like they do on Earth, so if you had a pot of boiling water in zero gravity, the bubbles would mostly just gather on the bottom of the pot. This is a problem with something like a radiator because the surface bubbles reduce the rate of heat transfer. In our project, we designed and tested surfaces that would clear bubbles on their own in microgravity.
Who are your favorite writers?
I'm a fan of Douglas Hofstadter.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
There's a children’s book called Silverwing about bats. When the bats die, they get to come back and contentedly fly and watch what happens to the world. I think that'd be nice, or at least interesting.
What is your favorite blog or website?
The FlyerTalk forums.