Atmospheric science is the study of the Earth’s atmosphere, focusing on weather, climate, and their interactions with other systems. Due to its complexity, this field requires a strong foundation in mathematics, physics and computer science. Atmospheric science is crucial for climate modelling, helping us understand and predict climate change and its impacts. Meet Ashley Huang, an atmospheric scientist who recently completed her honours degree at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, based at Australian National University. As an alumna of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Ashley is set to embark on a new academic journey, beginning her PhD at Cornell University in the United States this August. Below, we take a look at her career journey to date.

Ashley’s passion for climate science began in childhood

Ashley’s passion for nature is evident when asked about her motivation to study atmospheric science. “I really love earth science. When I visited New Zealand as a child, I was captivated by the beauty of the mountains and lakes, and I wanted to understand how they came to exist,” she said.

“Growing up in Shanghai, which is a really large and urbanised city, I would go to the bookstores and gravitate towards books with pictures of volcanoes and mountains. The earth sciences were interesting to me.”

Ashley began her Bachelor of Philosophy (Science) at the Australian National University in 2020. Her interest in climate science deepened during Australia’s devastating Black Summer Bushfires in 2019-2020.

“It seemed like a different world because I had never seen the power of nature like this. It was my first experience of a natural disaster, and I saw how frightening it can be,” she said.

“The fires were an important turning point where I realised the role of the atmospheric part of the earth system, a part that is less visible than other aspects like mountains or the ocean.”

This experience solidified her desire and determination to study climate science to better understand the mechanisms behind natural disasters like the Black Summer Bushfires.

Building research skills in the summer internship program

Over the summer of 2022-23, Ashley completed a summer internship with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at UNSW Sydney, the lead University for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes. Her supervisor recommended this internship to build more research experience before starting her honours project the following year.

Ashley spent six weeks at UNSW Sydney working alongside her supervisors, Professor Andrea Taschetto and Dr Zoe Gillett.

The project focused on how rainfall evolved during the recent triple-dip La Niña from 2020-2023 in Australia. This event, characterised by successive La Niña phases over three years, brought record-breaking rainfall and flooding across Eastern Australia, causing billions of dollars in damage. Understanding these multi-year events’ rainfall patterns is crucial for mitigating future impacts.

In her research, Ashley explained that rainfall increased in the third year of the triple-dip La Niña event compared to the first and second years, even though La Niña did not strengthen over that period.

“These results were very interesting, so we composed a manuscript which was recently published,” Ashley said.

“It was really exciting, and I didn’t expect that a summer internship project would go to publication. It was my first paper and so I think I’ll always remember it.”

This project was also her first time using a supercomputer to analyse data, code in Python, and complete a manuscript.

“I learned a lot during the internship, and Zoe and Andrea were super helpful and guided me throughout the process. The skills I learned, like coding, calculating climatology, and analysing data, are fundamental for research.”

The summer project provided a solid foundation for Ashley’s honours project, which examined how Australia’s rainfall variability is influenced by sea surface temperature and sea level pressure.

“The summer project has been a really important step in learning about different aspects of climate variability that impact Australia’s rainfall. It gave me a good starting point for my honours thesis.”

Embarking on a PhD at Cornell University

In August, Ashley will begin her PhD at Cornell University in the United States. While the specific topic has yet to be decided, it will be atmospheric science. Ashley said she aims to shift her focus from data analysis to understanding climate dynamics – the mechanisms in the atmosphere that drive climate patterns.

“Previously, I’ve been looking at how the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) would impact rainfall in Australia. The next step for me is to explore how ENSO forms and the factors impacting it, and to understand these mechanisms better,” she explains.

Looking ahead further, Ashley’s career goals involve producing research that contributes to our understanding of climate change and aids adaptation efforts. She hopes to make meaningful contributions to the scientific community.

For others who are aspiring to enter climate science, she offered several helpful tips: “Instead of taking coursework, try research, as this experience is very important. If students have the time to do a short research project, give it a go because it is very different from learning from courses, and you can see if it’s something you enjoy.”

Finally, she said it’s important to devote time to the things you enjoy outside of your studies. “In my time off, I usually explore different places for hiking and looking at different landscapes. I enjoyed that a lot when I was living in Canberra. 

“Now that I’m back in Shanghai, I don’t have this opportunity to explore nature, but I still enjoy looking at the culture, getting outside, and exploring the world.”