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Steve Vavrus: Polar Journey

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

Almost every day there is another news story about the rapidly changing polar environments and how amplified climate change is transforming the regions. Despite how alarming these reports are, they are also a good reason to pursue a career as a polar scientist. But what made me choose this path?

I’m Steve Vavrus, a Senior Scientist in the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When I began graduate school in 1990—egad!—after receiving a B. S. in Atmospheric Science from Purdue University, global and polar climate change was almost completely described in the future tense as a problem that will happen, rather than a “now” crisis. But my graduate advisor suggested that I pursue a master’s degree project on how to improve the simulation of Arctic sea ice in climate models, even though I didn’t know the first thing about polar regions at the time. However, the topic quickly resonated with me and led first to my Ph.D. research on Arctic paleoclimates and eventually to a career studying these fascinating and dynamic parts of the world.

Who knew back then that such dramatic environmental changes in polar regions would emerge within only a couple of decades? This serendipity of my research interests coinciding with a developing societal crisis has contributed greatly to a fulfilling scientific career, and it also shows what a strong influence that luck plays in all of our journeys. Initially, I was simply drawn to the general topic of climate change by a combined interest in weather and environmentalism; everything after that just blossomed from there.

My experiences and perspectives have been shaped a lot by being a soft-money scientist, i.e. relying on grants to fund my salary. Needing to constantly find funding is a big motivator to network early and often, including among tangential or even disparate fields to expand potential research collaborations. I encourage scientists of any age to seek a wide network of collaborators in multiple disciplines, both within your institution (university, government lab, etc.), nationally and even internationally. Doing this not only makes for more interesting work but also enhances your funding opportunities.

Within the polar scientific sphere, some recommended organizations in the U.S. besides USAPECS to consider for networking include ARCUS (Arctic Research Consortium of the United States), IGS (International Glaciological Society), IARPC (Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee), SEARCH (Study of Environmental Arctic Change), and the American Meteorological Society’s Committee on Polar Meteorology and Oceanography. All of these groups foster collaborations to help you break into the broad field of polar science and find other researchers with similar interests. In addition, it’s always helpful to seek out partnerships with more experienced researchers who have strong track records and can help you navigate the sometimes daunting world of grants, publications, and field work.

My final piece of advice is to strive for a career that embraces the Japanese concept of “Ikigai”, which roughly translates to “reason for being” and encourages a lifestyle that blends the spiritual with the practical. Ikigai is about finding a path that intersects four guiding questions: What are you good at?, What do you love?, What does the world need?, and What can you be paid for? Reflecting on where your own individual talents and motivations converge among these questions will hopefully serve as a useful career road map.

I wish you all the best in your upcoming scientific and life journeys!

Steve Vavrus (personal website)

Steve Vavrus’s research addresses several aspects of climate change, including the role of polar regions, the behavior of extreme weather, seasonal climate forecasting, regional impacts around Wisconsin and the Great Lakes, the role of aerosols on oceanic warming trends, and the origin of human-induced climate change. Vavrus address these questions mostly with computer climate models, which provide both quantitative estimates of future change and insights into the physical causes.

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