Scripps Student Spotlight: Susheel Adusumilli

Geophysics PhD student pursuing research of ice-ocean interactions makes a positive difference with his conversations and projects on climate change

Susheel Adusumilli is a fifth-year PhD student majoring in earth sciences with an emphasis on geophysics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. He previously attended the University of Manchester for his undergraduate degree in theoretical physics and the University of Oxford for his master's degree in applied mathematics. He is advised by Helen Amanda Fricker.


en: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Susheel Adusumilli: When I was studying for a master's degree in applied mathematics, many of my mentors were using innovative mathematical tools to study earth sciences. I learned from them that one of the most difficult problems in mathematics – the flow of ice sheets and glaciers – is also one of the most pressing problems that need to be solved to predict future changes in sea level. I also realized that I wanted to complete my PhD at an institution that valued cutting-edge and highly relevant research equally. Scripps ticked both boxes (the location helped, too)!


en: What are you researching at Scripps and how did you become interested in this field?

SA: My PhD research (with Prof. Helen Amanda Fricker at IGPP) is on improving our understanding of ice-ocean interactions around Antarctica. Antarctica is losing land ice at an accelerating rate, and current observations suggest it will become the largest contributor to sea-level rise by the middle of this century. Understanding variations in the height of Antarctic ice shelves – the floating edges of the continent’s ice sheet – can tell us how and why Antarctica is changing, and what that could mean for future sea levels. I use satellite data, computer models of the ocean and atmosphere, and field observations to look at how Antarctica's floating ice shelves are changing. Currently, I am working with data from NASA's latest ice-observing satellite mission, ICESat-2, which uses space lasers (!) to measure tiny changes in Earth's glaciers and ice sheets.

When I first joined Scripps, I didn't know what I would be working on for my PhD, and was exploring the various projects researchers here were interested in. In my first year, Adrian Borsa (faculty member at IGPP) approached me with a really cool idea: He was trying to use data from over a thousand GPS stations in the contiguous United States to precisely measure the total amount of water stored in different regions across the continent. We worked on it over the next couple of years, and wrote up a study with a few other collaborators (including Scripps' own Meredith Fish at CW3E). One of my favorite things about Scripps is the sheer number of incredibly fun projects people are working on!


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

SA: Except during the rare and awesome times when I'm doing fieldwork, my typical day is a little more pedestrian. Most days, I am writing computer code to process data, working on various manuscripts, and preparing for presentations. My officemates/floormates and I (Maya Becker, Bobby Sanchez, and Margaret Lindeman) work on similar topics, and have occasional discussions that are sometimes relevant to our research. Scripps is also a very collaborative place, and I love wandering around campus to talk to other students, postdocs, and faculty about the work they are doing. Everyone loves visiting Scripps, which means I also get to attend many great seminars by researchers from around the world. I am lucky to be part of a fun cohort of students and postdocs with diverse interests outside work: on a typical day, I sometimes play beach soccer, swim, (try to) surf, play some golf, or hang out at the Shack.


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?

Susheel Adusumilli at sea

SA: The favorite thing about my work is that I'm able to help identify and understand changes occurring in some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the world from my desk near a sunny beach at Scripps. I also loved all the time I've spent in the field in Antarctica, in the U.S., and on research cruises. They each came with unique challenges but were all exciting and rewarding.

My work has also taken me to some amazing places, such as Antarctica, the Azores, Banff, New Zealand, and Tasmania. I was also able to visit Madrid last year for the United Nations Climate Change conference (COP25), where policymakers across the world meet to discuss climate policy. In Madrid, my fellow delegates and I discussed our work with our local House representatives (Mike Levin and Scott Peters) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi! It is very rewarding when we talk to reporters, policymakers and members of the public who are excited about our science and think it's important.


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

SA: Many of my role models and mentors are the students and postdocs I work with at Scripps. My background is in theoretical work, and I was mostly studying abstract topics with little or no direct societal relevance. I still love working on these problems, but my interactions with students and postdocs at Scripps, most of whom are incredibly driven to make a positive societal impact have been inspiring. The ability to design, perform, and present societally-relevant research is probably the component of my graduate education where I have learnt the most. For this, everyone in the Borsa, Fricker, and Straneo labs deserve a special mention!


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

SA: I am very lucky to have amazing advisors (Helen Amanda Fricker, Laurie Padman, and Adrian Borsa) who have let me enjoy every moment of my graduate education. At Scripps, I've never struggled to find funding and my collaborators have always allowed me to work on my own deadlines. The biggest challenge for me is finding the time to take part in all the cool opportunities that have come my way. As I am finishing up my PhD this year, I have also been focussing a lot of my efforts toward finding a new job. While this has been challenging, it is also an exciting time where I am able to connect with different researchers around the world!


en: What are your plans, post-Scripps?

SA: I love my current research, and am hoping to continue working on a similar topic at an academic or research institution.


en: Is there any social media you would like to share?

SA: You can follow the work we do on ice sheets and the polar oceans on Twitter at @Scripps_Polar and @sioglaciology.


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