Scripps Student Spotlight: Rebecca Gjini

Geophysics PhD student researches stratocumulus cloud behavior through predator-prey dynamics

Rebecca Gjini is a second-year PhD student from Bergen County, N.J. Gjini went to Lehigh University for her undergraduate degree and studied applied mathematics and computer science. At Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, she is currently in the geophysics curricular group, which focuses generally on data assimilation and inverse theory. Gjini’s advisor is geophysicist Matthias Morzfeld of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) at Scripps. Gjini recently won a travel award from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) and was invited to write an article about her research for SIAM News.


explorations now (en): Why did you choose to attend Scripps?  

Rebecca Gjini (RG): I chose to come to Scripps because it has everything I wanted in a graduate program. It has a lot of flexibility in the classes I can take in my area of interest, top researchers in their fields who are wonderful to work with and a great community of students who are all very welcoming and make going to school here so wonderful.


en: What are you researching at Scripps? 

RG: My current research focuses on understanding stratocumulus cloud behavior through predator-prey dynamics. Stratocumulus clouds are low-level clouds that cover large spans of the ocean. These clouds are also a significant contributor to Earth's energy budget. To better understand stratocumulus clouds, a cloud model can be constructed using ideas from mathematical biology. In a "predator-prey" model, the population of the prey increases if the population of the predator is low and vice versa. I can use predator-prey dynamics in the context of clouds and think of rain as a predator of clouds. As a cloud thickens, rain is generated and, as rain falls from the cloud, the cloud shrinks in size. Then the process starts all over again. My hope is to see whether this model can tell us something new about stratocumulus cloud behavior.


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

RG: I have always loved mathematics. It's the reason I majored in it for my undergraduate degree. I started learning a lot more about climate change and environmental issues when I was in my junior year of college. It's such a huge issue our world is facing, one that once I understood the true scale of it, I couldn't see myself doing anything else after college except helping combat climate change. Going into research seemed like a perfect combination of doing what I love and contributing to a cause I really care about.  


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

RG: Life as a Scripps student is really exciting. A typical day for me would start off with going to the gym to get some exercise in before I start work. Afterward, I drive to Scripps to have a meeting with my advisor at 9:30 a.m. We typically talk about how my research is going, how classes are going, and any other topics I want to bring up. After that, I attend a research group meeting with other faculty and students who are interested in geomagnetism and mathematics. The meeting ends at noon, and then I have lunch with some of the group members at Pinpoint Cafe on Scripps campus. After lunch, I do some work and attend class overlooking the ocean in the Munk Conference Room. Once class is over, IGPP has tea time outside on the patio with tea and cookies for people to take a study break. After tea time, I try to get a little more work done and end my day driving home while overlooking the ocean. At the end of every day, I always like to unwind by cooking dinner and reading or watching a TV show with some friends.


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

RG: I think the best feeling is when you have an elaborate model coded up and have been stubbornly trying to get it to work, and you finally get it to compile correctly with the right result at the end. It can be really difficult to type up hundreds of lines of code and get it to run the way you expect, especially if no one has done it before. You might not know if it will work or not, so when you finally get your code working properly, it is a very satisfying feeling.


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

RG: At every stage of my life I always felt like I had someone to help guide me. In high school, it was a math teacher who really inspired me about how wonderful the world of mathematics is. During my undergraduate studies, it was a female computer science professor who really showed me that there is no mold for who can be a great scientist. She made me feel confident enough in my abilities to pursue research in the first place. Now, my advisor is one of the most supportive mentors I've had and really pushes me to be the best scientist I can be. I'm really thankful for these people and many more who have helped me grow as an individual both professionally and personally. 


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

RG: One of the biggest challenges for me is overcoming imposter syndrome. Everyone at Scripps is extremely smart and passionate about what they do. I always get in my own head about whether or not I'm working hard enough or I know the information well enough. The longer I've been here, the easier it has been to manage, but it's still something I struggle with at times.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

RG: I'm not exactly sure right now, but I think I would like to get a postdoc position and continue to research in the areas that I love.

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