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Janine Baijnath-Rodino

Q&A With Atmospheric Scientist

UCLA’s new director of meteorology talks about the new climate major program and the importance of having a global approach to climate science

Professor Janine Baijnath-Rodino recently joined UCLA as Director of Meteorology and adjunct assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences (AOS). A passionate scientist with a global perspective on climate change, Janine works with other scientists and engineers in academia and at NASA JPL to better understand extreme weather events and natural disasters.

Below, Janine answers some questions about the importance of climate science today, opportunities for undergraduates in AOS’s unique climate science major, and the growing importance of effective science communication.

Changing climate has affected humanity’s trajectory for as long as our species has been around. But it’s only in the last half-century that we’ve developed climate science with a global perspective. How has our ability to understand the complexity of Earth’s climate on a global scale changed how we see the world, and our place in that world? 

Our recent understanding of Earth’s climate on a global scale has changed our perspective on humanity and our place in this world. It has helped us realize how interconnected humans across the globe truly are – to each other and to the environment. In Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences,  “teleconnections processes”, helps us understand how a certain physical phenomenon in one location can impact physical processes in another region far away. For example, how can soot and particulate matter in wildfire smoke in California impact the melting of ice sheets in the Arctic?  

Now, more than ever, we can begin to explore teleconnection processes around the world. Gaining a deeper understanding of how our climate works allows us to formulate solutions to fundamental social, economic, and biological global issues.

Climate science is a global discipline, but you’re also a global citizen, having grown up in a mix of continents and cultures before landing at UCLA. Has your experience informed how you approach or think about climate science?

I was born in Guyana, raised in Canada, and spent the past few years in the United States.  The countries I have lived in – one a tropical rainforest, one with four distinct seasons, and one a semi-arid desert – in have shaped the way I think about climate and people, meteorology and climate sciences from a scientific perspective and a socio-economic perspective.

In Guyana, my parents, grandparents, and ancestors were dependent on the sugarcane industry for their livelihood. I became aware of how agriculture (and the political structures) can shape people’s lives, economy, and culture. 

Living near the Great Lakes in Canada, I was introduced to how extreme and unpredictable wintertime weather  conditions are over the massive freshwater lakes. This experience played an important role in my decision to pursue a career in the atmospheric sciences. In fact, my PhD research focused on understanding the uncertainties that riddle climate prediction models during extreme snow storm events.

Now, living in Southern California, I have a chance to apply what I learned about unpredictable climates and the human impact to important research on wildfire meteorology. I am interested in understanding how our regional climate and weather systems influence extreme wildfires, and ways in which we can mitigate and find effective solutions to living with wildfires. As an atmospheric scientist I am always paying attention to the physical environment around me. The perspective I gained from living in multiple countries and observing our world’s diversity has greatly influenced my livelihood, career path, and the types of scientific research questions I plan to tackle at UCLA.

UCLA’s new climate science major is the first of its kind in the country. What is so unique about this major and why is UCLA AOS so well-positioned to take the lead?

The climate major program will introduce undergraduates to different physical aspects in the climate sciences, with experts in the fields of dynamic climatology, oceanography, space physics, chemistry and physics, and biogeochemistry. Courses will not only be offered from the AOS department but also from Urban Planning, Geography, Environmental Science, Earth and Planetary Space Sciences, Mathematics, and Statistics departments. These departments are so highly specialized and provide many courses on the complex climate system from both the biophysical and human and sustainable perspectives.

Who is this degree program for? 

The Climate Change Major is for students who want to address the climate challenges facing our current and future generations – regardless of their previous experience. Students will learn about the anthropogenic and natural variability of climate impacts and how to find adaptive and mitigative solutions.They will also learn how to effectively communicate this information to policy makers and the public sector. What makes this major so fascinating is that it provides a breadth of knowledge and a holistic view of the complex climate system, preparing students to pursue many different avenues in the realm of climate change.    

As a new generation of climate scientists prepare to take on this immense challenge, what kinds of jobs and responsibilities can students in this new major expect to find themselves in? 

I always advise my students and mentees that their career direction is what they make of it. Unlike other majors  that have a narrow career  path paved out for them, students in our program have much more flexibility.   Graduating in this major gives you an amazing opportunity to create your own niche based on your passions, interests, and resources available to you. This can include jobs in industry, government, or academia. 

Industry jobs for students with this background are more diverse than people realize and provide a more quantitative approach to climate change. These jobs include environmental consulting, insurance and risk management , data analysis and processing, broadcast/operational meteorology, environmental law, and communications. 

Our faculty in the AOS Department are here to help our students learn more about  the opportunities available to them.   

Fair or not, the next generation’s scientists must also be effective communicators. What have you learned about science communication over the years and what does this degree add to a future climate scientist’s toolkit?

You have to understand people, personally and culturally, if you want to make them accept something new. This is especially true for climate science, where ideas can be abstract but results have direct implications on people’s lives. 

During my seven years as a TV Meteorologist, I learned the art of captivating and informing viewers on climate and weather stories. As a scientist, I effectively communicate my research objectives, methods and results for peer review papers and conferences. As a professor working with a team of undergraduate and graduate students, I must have the interdisciplinary skills to provide constructive and clear guidance on our scientific results and advancements.

It is more important than ever that science communication is integrated into the curriculum. The Climate Change Major offers an upper division course in environmental journalism, science communications, and new media, and will provide a well-rounded perspective into climate science.

Oftentimes, failure of governments to act on climate change is the result of ineffective communication – not failed science. We must find a way to make our work better heard and understood.