Science Alumni Spotlight: Rajashree Datta

May 1, 2019

EES Alumni Science Spotlight:  Rajashree Datta, Ph.D.

What is your academic background?
I received my PhD last year (2018) from the Graduate Center in Earth and Environmental Science, focusing on ice sheets in polar regions. My thesis used a regional climate model as well as observational data to understand the effects of the atmosphere on surface melt over the Antarctic Peninsula. While I eventually graduated in the physical sciences, I actually started the program studying human geography, so I have an active interest in both the physical and human impacts of climate change.

What are your current research areas?
I’m currently a postdoctoral scholar at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where I’ve started to take a purely observational perspective on some of the questions raised in my thesis work.

I’m trying to capture the evolution of surface melt at a high spatial resolution on ice shelves in Antarctica, using both imagery and laser altimetry from NASA’s newly-launched ICESat-2 satellite. More broadly, I’m very interested in how our field can leverage a recent surge in observational data to piece together how polar regions are changing in response to climate change. I’m also excited about advances in the communication and visualization of science (frequently coming from the arts) which can articulate our changing world for non-scientists, including policy-makers.

Can you talk about a recent accomplishment?
My co-authors and I recently published a paper that I’m proud of.  The paper focused on physical processes which could potentially facilitate ice shelf collapse over the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. The region has previously seen the surface melt-initiated disintegration of the Larsen A ice shelf (1995) and the Larsen B ice shelf (2002), which are just north of the remaining Larsen C. Larsen C recently experienced a large calving event in 2017, although this hasn’t been linked directly to surface melt.  Our study quantified patterns of surface melt from 1982-2017 over the Larsen C ice shelf.  We looked specifically at the effect of foehn winds (i.e. a hot, dry wind on the lee side of a mountain range), which can produce bursts of sporadic melt over snow.  We found an unusual amount of foehn-induced melt from 2015-2017 which created excess meltwater in the part of the ice shelf that is hit most frequently by foehn winds. This is important because this phenomenon can have a large impact on the ice shelf, making it more fragile.  

Ice photo in body of water

Taken aboard airborne fieldwork campaign over Antarctica which included Dr. Datta.  
NASA Operation IceBridge 2017, photo courtesy of John Sonntag

The paper received media attention from the American Geophysical UnionNewsweek MagazineScientific American, the NASA Earth Observatory, among other sources.

I’m certainly glad for the media attention, particularly the focus on the potential impacts of global climate change. However, the main reason I’m proud of this research is because the process of writing (and rewriting, and re-thinking) it, has changed the way I produce science. The final work evolved from a lot of early mistakes that forced me to aggressively reach out to senior experts in the field. I learned that asking big questions required me to accept critique with humility and question my own assumptions over and over again. I don’t think that great science is produced by singular individuals.  I’m proud to be a part of the group of scientists that I think with, both at NASA and the wider community of scientists and citizens who are asking the same questions.

What are some of your most memorable experiences at the Graduate Center?
My best experiences were conversations that seemed to go nowhere at the time, but which I find myself revisiting years later. A lot of these conversations were with Dr. James Booth (at City College), who was a member of my committee and taught me a great deal about both atmospheric processes and scientific writing (and a little about west coast rap). Many were with my fellow graduate Dr. Patrick Alexander (now at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory). Before I transferred to the physical sciences, Dr. Jochen Albrecht (at Hunter College) made me think a great deal about population dynamics in cities, and those conversations continue to inform my interest in how cities can adapt to climate change. I’m still in the beginning of my career, but already I’ve found that my best scientific ideas come from a wide-ranging intellectual engagement, and I’m grateful to the people at the Graduate Center who took the time to explore ideas with me.

What advice would you give to current or prospective students in the program?
Reach out to people, especially senior scholars, even if they seem like a closed community and you feel (and look) like an outsider. There are many people in a position to help you who simply welcome passion and curiosity. CUNY is a truly diverse community. The diversity of thought that flows from a diversity of people is a source of strength, especially when a lot of what you do for a living is to try to think outside of the box.  Also, think for fun. It’s important to balance a realistic plan for your future with experiences that remind you why an intellectual life is enriching. Remember to think like a perpetual student of the world (within your own subfield but certainly beyond it) even when people inexplicably start to call you an “expert”.