Suzana Camargo, PhD

Marie Tharp Lamont Research Professor at Columbia University

What would you say to aspiring scientists? 
“Find what’s right for you, what interests you, even if it is not the most fashionable or most hot topic of the time. You are spending many hours a day doing this, so find something that keeps your curiosity.”

“To be completely honest, I was not into science when I was a child. I really liked math,” says Dr. Suzana J. Camargo, who was raised in Brazil while it was under the control of a military coup. Suzana loved high school and excelled at it. Determining what she wanted to study in college, however, was a challenge. Her mother thought she should study medicine, but Suzana hated hospitals and knew she would be unhappy as a doctor. Her father, on the other hand, really tried to get her to study engineering. “‘You like math, why are you trying to study math? You should be an engineer,'” she remembers him saying. “He got me to talk with his engineering professors about math and engineering. This one professor suggested that I should study physics.” That professor gave Suzana some physics books to delve into, and she was hooked. She went on to take the four-day “vestibular exam,” a competitive Brazilian college entrance exam, and passed on the first try. Suzana matriculated at the University of São Paulo, a top university in Brazil, where she began studying physics.

It was during her time in university that Suzana began to appreciate science: “I always liked to solve problems, and all the science classes had that,” she says. She wanted to apply this love of problem-solving to research in a physics lab, so she went knocking on professors’ doors to see if anyone was interested in taking a research assistant. She was accepted into Prof. Iberê Caldas’ lab, which propelled her into studying plasma physics. Plasma, or the “fourth state of matter” after solids, liquids, and gases, is formed when electrons in an atom leave the atomic nucleus and generate a state which can be likened to gas with an electric charge. After finishing her undergraduate degree, Suzana continued working with Prof. Caldas to obtain her master’s degree in Physics.

After her master’s degree, Suzana planned to complete her PhD in the same lab. However, an opportunity to move to Germany changed her professional trajectory. Suzana leaped at the chance to participate in a two-year collaboration with one of Prof. Caldas’ previous mentors, Dr. Henri Tasso, at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Munich, Germany. “[Moving to Germany] was really a culture shock!” she admits. “Some things were not easy, but it was totally worth it.” One challenge she faced was adapting to her mentor’s style: “My advisor in Germany was a pretty tough guy. I had to learn to deal with it,” she reflects. “But it was because of his support that I got my scholarship to go to Germany. Then, once I was there, he liked my work, and he suggested that I stay and finish my PhD there.”

“To be completely honest, I was not into science when I was a child. I really liked math.”

Thus, instead of going home to Brazil, Suzana remained in Germany for the full period of her PhD and studied turbulence, a feature of plasmas which makes it difficult for their confinement  in a device. Confining plasma is essential for generating fusion energy, the same energy made by the sun, which has a huge potential to make electricity if we could safely harness its power on Earth. In addition to her scientific work, Suzana relished living in Europe. “[I loved] living in a different culture, with the opportunity to travel around Europe very easily,” she notes. “You get a train, and you are in Italy or in Switzerland for a few days. It was something I will cherish forever.”

After obtaining her PhD, Suzana stayed at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, where she was co-mentored by Drs. Bruce Scott and Dieter Biskamp. She continued to study turbulence, but now faced the exciting challenge of doing so using modeling and numerical simulations, instead of the analytical approach she had used as a PhD student (which she likens to “solving equations by hand”). She met and married her partner, Mike, an American applied mathematician who was doing a postdoc in the same lab. They had their first child when they were postdocs, and had to straddle two big challenges: raising their son without any childcare and working in academia.

After their postdocs, Suzana was recruited to a state university in São Paulo, Brazil and given a faculty position in plasma physics. While on paper the job should have been exactly what she wanted, Suzana was unhappy in the sleepy town of Guaratinguetá, where resources paled in comparison to those in Germany. “I was in that job for three years. I was so unhappy. After six months, I knew it wasn’t a good fit.”

“You can stay in that stable job and not be happy for many years, or you can take a leap and try something new.”

During this time, Suzana and her husband had their second child and decided to plan their next move. Mike, who had been working in atmospheric sciences in Brazil, got a position in New York at Columbia University’s new International Research Institute (IRI) for Climate and Society. While Suzana tried to find a position as a plasma physicist in the United States, there was very limited funding for this type of research at that time. Completely switching fields from physics to atmospheric sciences, she left her faculty position in Brazil and accepted a senior staff associate position at the IRI. While she had some technical background for this work, including programming and modeling, the atmospheric sciences jargon and the subject itself were completely foreign to her. It was a significant challenge to change fields, countries, and to raise two small children all at the same time, but Suzana persevered. Reflecting on her decision to make this huge life change, she says, “I had no idea how it would work. It would have been harder if I had been happy in my position [in Brazil]. You can stay in that stable job and not be happy for many years, or you can take a leap and try something new.”

It took a long time for Suzana to be taken seriously as an atmospheric scientist. When colleagues discovered that her background was in physics and that she came from Brazil, they doubted her scientific abilities. Some academics believe that scientists who come from countries with little research funding are not as capable. “There is a lot of hierarchy in academia: which University did you study at, [or] who was your advisor,” she explains. “Since I was coming from a different field, people didn’t know the people I had worked with.” Suzana also faced other biases as a woman in science. As she and her husband were given positions at the same time, many assumed that she was hired on his merits and that she herself lacked scientific talent: “I felt I had to prove myself all of the time. That can be tiring.”

Unwavering and determined, Suzana pushed on and started working on a new line of research: devising ways to use climate models to develop seasonal hurricane forecasts. The goal of this work was to make predictions about how active a hurricane season would be. Using these models led her to investigate how tropical cyclones were affected by climate change. Suzana’s creativity pushed her to the forefront of studying hurricanes, and soon she was publishing numerous papers – too many papers for IRI’s taste. Instead, they wanted her to fulfill their mission around the world, which was not just to do climate-related research, but also to travel to international communities and help them plan effectively for dangerous weather events.  To gain more freedom to do her research, she left IRI and moved to Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, also part of Columbia University. “At Lamont, each person develops your own research agenda. As long as you get funded and are doing good science, no one is going to tell you to do research on this or that.” She began as an associate research scientist in 2007 and now is a Lamont Research Professor. She co-leads a collaborative research group with multiple senior scientists at Columbia, namely, Profs. Adam Sobel and Michael Tippett and Dr. Chia-Ying Lee. In 2019 she was named the first Marie Tharp Lamont Research professor, a named chair at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She is also an adjunct professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and teaches climate courses for Columbia undergraduates. 

“I felt I had to prove myself all of the time. That can be tiring.”

Today, Suzana continues to study tropical cyclones and hurricanes, and how they are influenced by the climate. For example, why during hurricane season do we see a burst of multiple storms and then a period with no storms? What are the factors that determine how storms form, and how can we forecast them weeks in advance? Their group also tries to understand the risk of hurricanes to cities that could be hit by a hurricane but do not have a historical record (or very few records) of being in hurricane paths. Recently, Dr. Lee led a collaborative effort in their group to develop the Columbia Hazard Model, CHAZ, a type of computer forecast model. With this tool, they were able to generate thousands of “synthetic storms” in the Indian Ocean to calculate Mumbai’s risk of being affected by a strong cyclone. CHAZ can take environmental conditions into account that are changing due to anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change to better understand how tropical cyclone risk to big cities might change in the coming decades.

Suzana is also an editor for the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which is a prestigious, yet time-consuming responsibility. Out of the many scientific articles she is sent, she must select which ones should be passed to academics in the field for review in order to determine whether those articles should be published. She admits that it is a delicate balance to include diverse reviewers in this process, including women: “You don’t want to be always asking female reviewers [to look at papers]. They end up spending too much time doing reviews instead of doing their own papers.” Suzana explains, “It’s a double-edged sword: Yes, we want to have representation, but if the percentage of women is low [in a field], then they end up doing much more of this type of work than men do.”

Through her scientific career, which has been filled with exciting twists and turns, Suzana’s deep love of math, coding, and physics has helped her excel in all of the research areas she has explored. She has taken huge risks to dive into new opportunities, and her courage and passion have helped her rise to faculty positions in two different fields. Now her important work predicting and modeling hurricanes will help cities and communities across the world adapt to our changing climate.

Suzana Camargo, PhD, is a Marie Tharp Lamont Research Professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University. Faculty profile

by Rachel Duffié

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