Mapping Climate Change with Math
by Leigh Grace Eggleton (Frances C. Richmond Middle School)
Interviewee: Lori Siegel (Climate Interactive)
For as long as she can remember, Lori Siegel has loved math because there are no loose ends. A correct answer is a correct answer, even if there are different ways to get there. “I like that you know if it’s right or not,” she told me during an interview.
Dr. Siegel is an environmental engineer who develops computer models to help people understand what is happening to our climate. She strongly dislikes the fact that we produce so much carbon that we could destroy our environment.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1971, Dr. Siegel has gravitated toward math ever since she understood what the word “math” meant. “I remember counting things when I was little. I remember finding things in twos so I could count in twos,” she told me. Math provided clarity for her. “There is so much ambiguity in the world and math and science made sense.” Math led her, when she was a kid, to science. “Math is a great way to make sense of science.” She took things apart to see how they worked. When she was in fifth grade, she decided to see what was inside a battery. To soften the metal casing she put a lit match to the battery. It exploded and she got acid in her eyes. Thankfully the damage wasn’t too bad. Eye wash and tears flushed the acid out, but her family afterward joked that her science blinded her.
It was in high school where she learned about engineering. “When I found out that there was this field of engineering where I could do math and science for my job, I was like: Yeah! Sign me up! It felt natural to pursue it.” It was also in high school that she realized that the human species was scarring the environment. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 had a big impact on her. “It horrified me that we could be contaminating this pristine environment.”
She majored in civil engineering at Tufts University. “I always knew I wanted to pursue something that used the analytical side of my brain because that’s the side of my brain I like better.” She earned her master’s degree in environmental engineering at Tufts.
Upon graduation, she went to work full time for Stone and Webster as a project engineer. She led site investigations to figure out how to clean up contamination. One thing that she really enjoyed was telling drillers where to drill holes so she could collect soil samples. Dr. Siegel missed school though, and decided to go to Northeastern and earn her Ph.D. While she was there, she did her first project that involved computer modeling. “My doctoral research was on a complicated subject that I needed a modeling tool to help me answer the questions, so I learned this new tool called Systems Dynamics. That’s the kind of modeling I still do today.”
One night she was stumped on how to translate differential equations into modeling code. She had just had her first child and was up with the baby. It was almost two in the morning. Then suddenly it clicked. “I remember thinking—please don’t forget this. The next morning I wrote everything down and I was so afraid it wouldn’t make sense, but it worked.”
When Dr. Siegel started with engineering, climate change wasn’t considered a big problem. Environmentalism was focused on pollution. “It wasn’t until 2008 that I said—Whoa, this is a big problem and I want to use my capacity to do something about it. So I found this organization working on climate change and I said—Hey! I think I can help.”
Climate Interactive remains the organization she works with today. The way that she explained it to me was: “Basically the models that I make are made up of thousands of series of differential equations and the relationships that are based on math.” When I went to Climate Interactive’s website, I experimented with some of the models that Dr. Siegel made. It showed me exactly what we need to do to help our climate. For example, if we raise our carbon tax, then our global temperature goes down. The same would be the case if we increased tree plantings and encouraged electric vehicles. It was amazing to me that I had met the genius who had made those predictions.
A work day for Dr. Siegel might look like a lot of things. The one thing that’s consistent in every day is that she is always modeling. She works from home which means that she has a lot of flex time. The only problem with that is sometimes she works way too late. On occasion she works until midnight!
The thing that she loves above everything else is developing the structure—creating it and solving the puzzle. “It can be frustrating when you can’t figure out the right equation or how to link a piece of the model best together. But that frustration makes when you get it right, more exciting. You worked so hard and you’re like: You got it!”
One thing that she’s really, really proud of is that she’s had a write-up on the New York Times front page during the Paris climate talks. They put up her modeling tool!
Dr. Siegel has been very lucky that she has been treated equally by her teachers and classmates, but there was a small moment when she was applying for grad school. The head of a program said—Oh, you’re a girl in engineering. Good for you! The comment felt disrespectful because it sounded like he was surprised by a female’s presence.
As for me, Dr. Siegel advised me to find something that I’m interested in and see how math fits into it. Math is everywhere.
Dr. Siegel is very good at connecting the dots. She loves that her models teach us what we have to do to save the planet. Most importantly, they also give us hope that we can do it.