Scripps Student Spotlight: Noel Gutierrez-Brizuela

Physical oceanography student researches extreme tropical weather and how swings in weather leave a persistent mark on the ocean

Noel Gutierrez-Brizuela is a physical oceanography student in his sixth year in the PhD program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Originally from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, he previously studied at Universidad de Guadalajara and earned his bachelor’s degree in physics. Gutierrez-Brizuela is co-advised by climate scientist Shang-Ping Xie and oceanographer Matthew Alford, is a member of Alford’s Multiscale Ocean Dynamics (MOD) group, and was a COP27 delegagte. 


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

NG: Scripps first came to my radar when I was working on my undergraduate thesis and had to learn about oceanic internal waves. Some of the papers I read, which mostly came from research groups at Scripps, Oregon State University, and the University of Washington, left me fascinated, so I decided I’d apply to graduate school at any of those places and learn more about internal waves. In the end, I only got admitted to Scripps, so I didn’t have to think about it twice. Scripps has myriad advantages over other oceanography schools, including its proximity to Mexico, an unrivaled campus, and everything that San Diego and Southern California have to offer. 

Gutierrez-Brizuela next to vines of Petit Verdot at a legendary vineyard on the Northern Slope of Mt. Etna. Over the last 20 years, the grapes from these vines have been crucial to spearhead the skyrocketing reputation of Sicilian wines.


What are you researching at Scripps?

NG: My research deals with extreme tropical weather from an ocean perspective, focusing on how ocean turbulence is driven by atmospheric variability and helps redistribute heat within the ocean. I like to cover as many perspectives as I can with my research, so even though I mainly work with direct ocean observations, I always seek additional insight from theory, numerical models, and satellite data. The arc of my PhD has taken me from studying immediate and long-term ocean responses to some of the most intense tropical cyclones on record, and understanding how these and other short-lived events shape seasonal and permanent characteristics of the ocean. In summary, I’m crafting accounts of how random and extreme swings in weather leave a persistent mark on the ocean.


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

NG: My father is perhaps the greatest influence that encouraged me to get into science. He is a researcher in mathematical statistics. Since I was a kid, he exposed me to how scientific research works and why it’s so valuable for making decisions. Eventually, my father’s influence, as well as some books and high school teachers, led me to study physics in college. My transition into oceanography happened years later after going on a solo backpacking trip to Alaska, where the beauty and immensity of mountains, valleys, and glaciers shook me to the core. There, I decided to build a career that would keep me connected to such remote areas, paying attention to the wonderful natural events that shape the world we know, and yet few humans ever get to witness. When I returned to Guadalajara after my trip, I approached climatologist Iryna Tereshchenko to learn more about earth science. She later suggested that I take up a research project that Anatoliy Filonov at the Universidad de Guadalajara was seeking students for. 


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

NG: A typical day for me starts with a big breakfast and coffee around 7 a.m. I usually walk or take the bus to Scripps, where I quickly settle in with a brief chat with my officemates. My work mostly consists of writing code for data analysis and visualization, editing my own manuscripts, coordinating with colleagues and advisors, and reading papers. I prefer to do the more complex tasks early in the morning or very late in the evening if I’m feeling inspired. I generally like to schedule meetings and email time for the second half of the day. Meeting up with friends at seminars or over lunch is also an important part of my experience at Scripps, so I do that as often as I can. Much of my time off work is spent exploring the many cultural gems of Southern California, such as bougie restaurants, dive bars, and concert venues. I also enjoy cooking, making clothes, playing guitar, and getting close to friends. 


Gutierrez-Brizuela on a backpacking trip to Sequoia National Park with Scripps and UCSD colleagues. Moose Lake, which sits above 10,000 ft, is behind him. 

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

NG: Retrieving and analyzing oceanographic observations is one of the greatest privileges in my life. The MOD lab deploys heavily instrumented moorings in remote areas of the ocean all around the world. After months submerged under crushing pressure, all those instruments are holding the key to deciphering some of the planet’s most guarded secrets. One of my greatest fieldwork experiences was chasing tropical cyclones in the Philippine Sea back in the fall of 2018. The ocean is full of surprises, and seeing it in such extreme conditions was a deeply meaningful experience. Getting to spend years working on the observations we gathered there gives me time to process and understand what was happening around the ship back then. It blows my mind to think that, at literally any time, countless majestic events are unfolding in our world’s oceans.


Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

NG: Scripps is full of wonderful people, and so many of them inspire me to be better, but I must highlight the roles that Shang-Ping Xie and Brian Tucker have played lately. I look up to Shang-Ping because he has the most profound respect for the scientific process and for the complexity of the climate system. He likes to convey how doing great science is such a rare privilege, and his advice always comes in time to help me with difficult decisions. Brian, who visited Scripps to lead a seminar on non-academic careers earlier this year, is relentlessly engaged in giving his best to improve the lives of others. Among many other things, he taught me that patience is an inexhaustible resource and that great results can only come from a long series of good decisions. 


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

NG: The PhD program requires students to solve problems using a broad range of skills, and there is no blueprint for what we’ll need to know or how to learn it. For most of grad school, my greatest challenge was balancing my time between the many tasks in my projects. Too many times I spent way too much time on hyper-specific technical details that didn’t amount to anything once all the results were summed up and put into a manuscript. The turning point was at the beginning of my fourth year when I got a clearer picture of my duties and the resources I could rely on to get there. Having those two things very clear made decision-making so much easier. 


What are your plans post-Scripps?

NG: I’m looking for opportunities in international development and the productive sector, where I hope to help countries and large organizations become more resilient against climate uncertainty and risk. Basic social needs rely on the balance of countless environmental factors that are becoming increasingly unreliable. However, we don’t have enough climate and ocean scientists who are developing methods to make processes predictable in spite of increasing risks. Therefore, I wish to use my technical expertise and personal skills to expand the ways in which climate and ocean science influence decisions involving natural resources.  

You can find Gutierrez-Brizuela on Instagram @noelbrizuela and on Twitter @ngbrizuela.

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