Scripps Student Spotlight: Athina Lange

A graduate student studies wave runup through ocean topography, and how it can be used to forecast flooding in coastal communities

Athina Lange is a PhD student in her third year at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, studying physical oceanography with a focus on coastal oceanography. A San Diego native, Lange grew up in Del Mar and Carmel Valley, and later moved abroad to Germany for high school. Before coming back to San Diego to study at Scripps Oceanography, she attended college at University College Dublin, in Dublin, Ireland, earning her bachelor’s degree in theoretical physics. In company with her advisor Mark Merrifield, Lange does research in the Coastal Processes Group.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Athina Lange: Having grown up in San Diego, I’d always heard about Scripps – even going on school field trips to the Birch Aquarium. So when I was looking for fluid mechanics/oceanography programs, of course I had to apply. The physical oceanography program focuses on classes in the first year, and gives you time to decide on a research subject and advisor, which I really liked. Being invited to Open House – when prospective graduate students come to campus to meet researchers and learn more – essentially sealed the deal. Everyone was so welcoming, the campus was gorgeous, and the breadth of topics studied at Scripps are what made me accept that very weekend.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

AL: I work in coastal oceanography. Specifically, my work surrounds how we can better predict how high water will run up the beach (wave runup), by understanding the effects that the underwater topography has on the incoming waves, and including it in our wave runup models. Using numerical models, I can run simulations with different underwater topography and wave conditions, to see how runup varies. Videos from drones and stationary cameras allow us to estimate what the topography is and how it changes over time, without having to do time (and resource) intensive surveys. The goal is to create a new runup forecasting system that can include updating underwater topography estimates in places where it regularly floods in San Diego County.


en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?

AL: While I always thought physics was cool, in high school I actually wanted to study archaeology and anthropology. And yet, I ended up going to school for physics in Dublin. While I enjoyed the theoretical physics classes, there was always a part of me that had a difficult time visualizing how it all fit together. The fluid mechanics classes were the exact opposite, where all the equations fell into place in the physical world. At the start of my fourth year, I decided I’d see where grad school applications took me. I love the fact that in coastal oceanography, I can look outside my office window and see all the processes that I’m studying at work.


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.

AL: A typical day is walking down to my office in the new Center for Coastal Studies building and planning out my tasks and meetings for the day. At the moment, I have at least one virtual meeting a day, and I set an alarm so I don’t miss it. Lately I’ve been working on my qualifying proposal, so that included a lot of reading papers for background literature, as well as writing. Some days, I help out with our field work at local beaches, which can include helping fly the drone so I have more videos to work with. I’ll see who’s around campus to have lunch with at Pinpoint Café and we’ll catch up. The afternoon is spent back at the office, writing or running algorithms on my video data to estimate bathymetry. I try not to work too late to keep a good work-life balance, so around 5:30, I pack up and head home.  


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?

AL: I love the applicability of the work our lab does. We’ve recently developed flood forecasting models for Imperial Beach that provide more advanced warnings of flooding events so that the city can better prepare. The direct application of our work to help coastal communities is really rewarding. We also have all these cool instruments including jet skis, ATVs, and drones that we get to use to learn more about our beaches, which is always a lot of fun.


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

AL: Coming into a PhD program straight from undergrad, I didn’t have a specific project or topic in mind for my thesis research. I found a project that seemed really interesting and started working on it following the first year of coursework. But it just never seemed to click for me, and I was happy I was able to switch to my current project, half way through my second year. My advice: don’t feel like you are necessarily stuck on a project, see what else is out there, explore other options, you never know what you’ll find. 


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

AL: I would like to work in a field where I can continue my current work, using modern remote sensing techniques to improve coastal monitoring, and have it be directly applied to help protect coastal communities.

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