Scripps Student Spotlight: Pengcheng Zhang

Climate sciences PhD student researches the atmospheric super-rotation phenomenon on Earth

Pengcheng Zhang is in his second year studying climate sciences as a PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Zhang grew up on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in the city of Laiwu, China. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the School of Physics at Peking University, and majored in atmospheric sciences before attending Scripps. Zhang is co-advised by climate scientists Shang-Ping Xie and Nicholas Lutsko.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Pengcheng Zhang: Although I had never been to California until I came here, I knew that Scripps was one of the leading institutions in oceanography and atmospheric science. Many friends also suggested that I choose to attend Scripps. Besides, my advisors Nick and Shang-Ping not only have great knowledge, but also great charisma. I feel lucky to work with them.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

PZ: I am currently working on a project that focuses on Earth’s super-rotation, a special atmospheric state where winds have a greater angular momentum than the planet. Earth's super-rotation is confined to the high troposphere above the equator, and is more pronounced during winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Our goals are to characterize this phenomenon on Earth, find any possible connection with other climate variabilities such as El Niño and Madden-Julian Oscillation, and finally be able to explain the mechanism of its formation and evolution.


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

PZ: When I was a little boy, I was very curious about the weather and its evolution. Being able to predict the weather a few days ahead is like magic—a magic that I wish I could learn. When I entered university, I chose this field without too much consideration because I knew that I would be able to use strict math and physics to explain daily phenomena.


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

PZ: On a typical day, I walk to my office in the MESOM Laboratory at Scripps around 9:00 a.m., work until noon, and have lunch with other students—but perhaps it’s better to eat alone during the pandemic. During the day, I may also attend class or meet with my advisors. Before going back home, I usually walk down to the beach near the pier and enjoy the sunset, watching the sun gradually sink into the ocean.


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

PZ: My work involves all kinds of numerical models, from complex global climate models, to simple, one-dimension ones. We rely on these models to simulate the world and perform experiments that have never been done on our planet. Once I run a model, I feel as if I am creating a whole new world on the computer, and I can have total control over this world by simply changing lines of code. In other words: I am the god of my little world. I have to be careful and responsible so that my world can be sustainable (i.e., so that my model doesn’t crash). Therefore, writing and debugging codes do not bore me at all.


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

PZ: I was fortunate enough to meet a famous Chinese woman archaeologist, Jinshi Fan, at the 120th anniversary of my alma mater, Peking University. She spent fifty years in impoverished western China after graduation, and devoted her whole life to the protection of ancient cultural relics. I believe the best way to contribute to humankind like she did, is to work hard in my own field.


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

PZ: For me, the biggest challenge is loneliness. It does not just mean pursuing a degree in a foreign country; it is also the loneliness during research. It feels like walking in the darkness with an oil lamp. You don’t know how far you need to go or how long the darkness lasts; all you can do is keep walking, until the sun breaks the horizon. Although help is always available from advisors or peer students, the hardest part must be overcome by oneself with great patience.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

PZ: My ultimate goal is to get a faculty position at a major research university, either in the United States or in China. Before that, I may also need to find a postdoc position and continue my research in my field.

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