‘Diversity-in-STEM warrior’ heads to Princeton

June 8, 2022

Veeshan Narinesingh uses computer models to predict changes in climate.

Veeshan Narinesingh
Veeshan Narinesingh begins a fellowship at Princeton’s Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System (CIMES) in July. (Photo courtesy of Narinesingh)

Our atmosphere churns and flows the same way that waves do in the ocean. In fact, Veeshan Narinesingh (Ph.D. ’22, Physics) explains, the atmosphere behaves just like fluid. And when you apply the laws of physics to air molecules, he said, you can predict the weather.  

Narinesingh takes his knowledge of physics to the next level to understand the Earth’s climate and predict what it might do in the coming decades. A self-described “diversity-in-STEM warrior,” he brings the world of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to students in underserved communities.

Next month, he’ll begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System (CIMES), a collaboration of Princeton University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He talked about his work in STEM education and atmospheric science in an interview with the Graduate Center.

The Graduate Center: Tell us about your current research. What does it focus on?

Narinesingh: I study the atmosphere.

Have you ever taken a physics class? You remember there was Newton's second law, F equals MA? And there was the energy conservation equations for your potential energy?

So, think about the basic stuff; energy conservation and Newton's law, force equals mass times acceleration. You can take those equations and you can write them for the atmosphere. All those little molecules in the atmosphere, you write the same equations for them and treat the atmosphere like a fluid.

Just like the ocean flows and churns and has waves, the atmosphere has those same properties. You take those equations — and throw in some other stuff, like your ideal gas law from chemistry — and you can solve those equations. When you solve those equations, you can predict the weather.

You can modify those models. For example, you can change the amount of carbon dioxide and the amount of greenhouse gases, let it run for a hundred years and then see how the weather patterns change. The waves in the atmosphere, the Rossby waves that cause these weather patterns, you can look at those changes as well.

What my research does is take these climate models and run them in different climates, current climates and possible future climates, and look at how certain weather patterns and Rossby waves change in the atmosphere.

GC: Your website says that your research focuses on atmospheric blocking. What is atmospheric blocking?

Narinesingh: A lot of times we think about cyclones, which are low-pressure systems — things like hurricanes, blizzards, nor’easters. But with these waves, you can also generate very strong, high-pressure systems. Another word for these high-pressure systems is anticyclones.

When they're very strong, they sit in the atmosphere and they form what is called an atmospheric block. An atmospheric block is a large, high-pressure system that sits over a region. It doesn't really move around much. In the summertime, especially, it can create hot temperatures and lead to heat waves.

I study the physics of these atmospheric blockings — how the waves act to generate the atmospheric blocks, how they're maintained, how they decay, and, probably most important, how they change in warmer climates and different climate scenarios.

GC: How did your time at City College lead you to where you are now?

Narinesingh: My parents moved here from Trinidad and Tobago. They moved to the Bronx. We moved around, so I lived in upstate New York, for a while, too. It was my parents' dream for me to go to college. My mom really nurtured me because, growing up, I was always interested in physics. But I was getting into a lot of trouble when I was a kid. It was kind of a tough time growing up.

My mom said, ‘You got to move back to the Bronx with your sister and go to college.’ I went to Pace University, and I studied chemical engineering. Then I switched to marketing. Then I was like, ‘You know what? I want to go study what I'm really interested in, which is physics.’ So, I switched to City College. It was more affordable, because my dad lost his job during the recession. I had to work and support myself and I had to help my family.

But I was immature and getting into trouble. I took physics one and actually failed it. I remember standing there on Broadway, by City College, and contemplating my life. I remember thinking, ‘Am I smart enough to do this? Am I cut out to be a physicist?’ But, I said, ‘Let me try one more time. I‘ve got to make some changes. I’ve got to study harder.’

I continued at City College. I passed the physics course that I failed. I passed the next one and did pretty good. And I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I can do this.’ So, I persevered. At first, it was really difficult. I didn't get good grades, especially in math and physics, but I had a great support system with my classmates. A lot of us had similar stories in terms of where we came from. We were from immigrant families and growing up in certain parts of New York. We studied together, we buckled down and eventually figured it out.

The faculty at the City College physics department were also super supportive. They saw something in me and gave me a lot of encouragement.

Yeah, it's a very CUNY story.

GC: Why do you call yourself a “diversity-in-STEM warrior?”

Narinesingh: Diversity in STEM and access to STEM are important to me, especially in the kind of underserved communities that I came from. Some kids don't even have access to textbooks when they're learning science. I lived more than half my life in the city and part of my life upstate, and seeing the disparity in schools was really jarring to me. It very much motivated me.

Also, being a scientist of color, going to conferences and looking around the room and not really seeing people that I identify with or that looked like me made me feel weird, it made me feel like I had to act a certain way.

So, at City College, Professor Timothy Boyer brought us down to the basement and showed us all these different physics demonstrations. And I said myself, ‘The kids in Harlem don't ever get to experience stuff like this,’ you know, see the physics rather than hear someone lecture about it.

So, I started initiatives to bring students from Harlem to City College to see physics demonstrations … That sparked my passion. I started tutoring while I was an undergrad. That really inspired me because you could see all these kids, they were bright and they wanted to learn and they were hungry. But they just needed more of an opportunity. They really reminded me of myself.

Recently, I started working with the Harlem Gallery of Science and the National Society of Black Physicists. From talking to educators in Harlem, I came to the conclusion that doing events and tutoring is good. But, at the same time, there wasn't much follow-up to create reliable relationships for these kids. I thought really hard about mentorship, and I gave a talk at Columbia University about it.

Some people from the Harlem Gallery of Science heard about it — they're also CUNY faculty, by the way. They approached me about starting a mentorship program. It's probably my crowning achievement. All my scientific papers, all that stuff is great, but this mentorship program is really what I'm most proud of. We work with young people of color from Harlem, the Bronx, and we pair them up with college student role models who major in STEM, who are from similar cultural backgrounds. It’s called the National Society of Black Physicists-Harlem Gallery of Science Mentoring Program.

GC: What will you focus on at Princeton?

Narinesingh: Because I laid out the groundwork for atmospheric blocking research throughout my Ph.D., it will be a continuation of that.

This is a federally-funded laboratory, which creates the best kind of climate models with the best kind of computing power that's available to really understand climate change and how the weather patterns will evolve in the future. We already know, for a fact, that human beings are changing the weather and climate on the Earth. We have to know how to prepare for that, what to expect in the future, and how to build better to be ready for these impacts.

My work will be to continue to look at the changes in atmospheric blocking in future climates, but also extreme weather events, in general — things like precipitation, heat waves, the waves in the atmosphere — so, looking at these advanced computer models and understanding how the climate changes and how weather patterns will evolve in the future.

GC: What advice would you have given yourself at the start of your Ph.D. journey?

Narinesingh: Probably the biggest thing is to just be mindful. Towards the end of my Ph.D., when I started working with the mentoring program, I got into meditation and mindfulness. It's something that I've always wanted to pursue, but I could never really sit still.

Professor Stanley Altman at City College helped me get into it, and it made me much more able to handle stress. It made me realize that nothing is permanent. You go through tough times in life, but it doesn't last forever. And you just have to focus on the moment and get through it.

So, I would tell myself to be more mindful, learn who I really am and how I can be there for other people, as well.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing