Scripps PhD students Travis Courtney and William Chapman. Photo (left) by Lark Starkey

Two Scripps Oceanography Students Honored for Exceptional Research

Travis Courtney awarded Chancellor’s Dissertation Medal; William Chapman awarded Frieman Prize

As the 2020 academic year draws to a close, two PhD students at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego are being awarded for scholarly excellence. Travis Courtney was selected as a 2020 Chancellor’s Dissertation Medal Recipient, and William Chapman was selected to receive the 2020 Edward A. Frieman Prize for Excellence in Graduate Student Research.

Courtney, a Scripps postdoctoral scholar and member of the SCOOBY Research Group, is one of six Chancellor’s Dissertation medalists selected this year who will be recognized at the Graduate Division Virtual Commencement on Saturday, June 13. The prestigious medal was established through the Chancellor’s 2013 partnership with the Graduate Student Association as an opportunity to recognize outstanding doctoral research.

As a student in the geosciences program at Scripps, Courtney looked at the intersection between biogeochemistry and ecology to explore the ecological and environmental drivers of coral reef calcification. His award-winning dissertation focuses on quantifying the rates and drivers of the growth and maintenance of coral reefs to better understand how coral reefs – and the services they provide to humanity – may be impacted by local and global environmental change.

“As part of Travis' dissertation, he published five exceptional papers that challenge existing paradigms and quantitatively illustrate critical nuances that are essential to form a robust understanding of the effects of environmental change on coral reefs,” said Scripps Assistant Professor Andreas Andersson, Courtney’s advisor. “He has created a unique niche of research by combining coral reef biogeochemistry with ecology, which allows for novel perspectives to be explored.”

Andersson nominated Courtney for the medal based on the quality and extent of the work associated with each of his “remarkable” dissertation papers, which he said will have “long standing impacts on coral reef science.”

Up to six Chancellor’s Dissertation Medal awards are bestowed annually based upon a review of faculty committees in divisions across UC San Diego, including Scripps Oceanography. The award criteria and full list of 2020 recipients are listed here.

Chapman, a fourth-year PhD student in the climate sciences program at Scripps, was selected as the 25th recipient of the Edward A. Frieman Prize for Excellence in Graduate Student Research. This award was established in 1996 to honor the eighth director of Scripps, Edward A. Frieman, on his 70th birthday.

The Frieman Prize is given annually to honor Scripps graduate students who have distinguished themselves in their field as measured by the quality of a publication during the previous year. Chapman’s winning paper, “Improving Atmospheric River Forecasts with Machine Learning,” was published in the Sept. 2019 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

Chapman’s research, conducted under Scripps co-advisors Shang-Ping Xie and Marty Ralph, looks at numerical weather prediction model forecast post-processing and processes that drive predictability for North American weather across various time scales.

In the paper, he describes using machine learning and artificial intelligence methods in order to improve atmospheric river forecasts out to seven days lead time. Atmospheric rivers are long and narrow streams that channel water vapor from the tropics and bring large amounts of precipitation to the West Coast of North America. 

Xie said Chapman’s significant meteorology research findings made him an ideal candidate to receive the Frieman Prize.

“The recent rise of artificial intelligence offers new methods to analyze and understand big data in weather observations and forecasts,” said Xie, a Scripps professor and climate scientist. “By his own initiative, Will has positioned himself on the cutting edge of this big data revolution in weather and climate science. I am catching up with the methods he has developed.”

Chapman will be formally recognized with the Frieman Prize at the virtual Scripps Day celebration on Friday, June 12.

“I am extremely honored and flattered to receive this prize and just hope that my research can lead to improved forecasting and early awareness of extreme precipitation,” said Chapman.

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