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Arriving at my research question
Series Note: The following post is part of a series written by Rutgers graduate students participating in the 2017 Dissertation Funding Mentoring Program. Designed to allow students to practice public writing, the first blog post prompt asked participants to narrate a story about how they came to be interested in their research topic.
Shortly after I moved across the country to start my MS degree back in 2013, I suddenly had to choose a new advisor, and just as suddenly, was given an overwhelming freedom: pick any topic that had caught my interest in the past and come up with a geography-climatology MS thesis project for it. There were two criteria: the topic had to be something feasible that could be conducted in a short time frame without external funding, and I had to have my project solidified within about 2 weeks. I thought back to my previous coursework and kept circling back to an interdisciplinary course I had taken about the New York City water supply system. I was intrigued by the vulnerability of the aging infrastructure and the questions surrounding it regarding climate change. I completed a thesis investigating the characteristics of flash flooding in the NYC water supply system watersheds, published it warily, and moved on to my PhD at Rutgers.
At Rutgers, I was faced with the same crushing freedom: pick a project, come up with a passion. My MS thesis had generated more questions (some might even say more questions than answers), so I stayed on the same path of changing precipitation in the northeastern United States. My new advisor suggested that I take a look at the work done with atmospheric rivers, just for fun. Atmospheric rivers, at the time (circa 2015), were defined as long, filamentary structure of enhanced water vapor transport in the atmosphere. While their existence has been realized for a few decades, they are quickly becoming a hot topic again as climatologists recognized their importance in water and energy budgets. These features are responsible for a huge portion of poleward moisture and energy transport, but are largely understudied except for places where they are responsible for any and all major precipitation, such as California. I noticed that atmospheric rivers, by definition, may have been behind the flash-flood producing patterns I had identified in my MS thesis, and many other heavy precipitation events in the region. However, at this point, “atmospheric rivers” and “northeastern United States” have not appeared in the same sentence. Hey, there is a gap for me!
In the background, I kept hearing echoes of the widely known finding that extreme precipitation is projected to increase in the northeastern United States. The Third National Climate Assessment showed that the amount of precipitation falling in the heaviest 1% of precipitation events is projected to increase by a whopping 71%. This finding has motivated a pulse of research in extreme precipitation, including my own. However, as a geographer who is trained to see nothing in black and white, those results raise other questions for me. What is happening with precipitation in the top 5%? Top 25%? Could changes in those events be tied back to changes in patterns of atmospheric water vapor transport? What are the changes in patterns of atmospheric water vapor transport? What even are the patterns of atmospheric water vapor transport in the region? We have finally arrived at my dissertation research questions!