Da Yang, an atmospheric scientist with UC Davis and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was recently awarded a Packard Fellowship for his research on the physics of intense rainstorms. We sat down with him to learn what sparked his curiosity in science, and how he hopes his research will help us better understand and manage the impacts of climate change.
What got you interested in this field and what you do?
I’ve talked to astronomers who were inspired by their first time seeing the Milky Way. But my curiosity in science was triggered in a traditional classroom. The first time I learned about Newton’s Law, I thought, “That’s amazing!” With a simple equation, I can predict the movement of objects. Then physics became my favorite subject in school.
I entered college in 2004. As an undergrad, I went to a condensed matter group to make new materials, but I didn’t fall in love with it. At the same time, environmental issues were rising, especially global change, with important consequences. Then I worked on a project about atmospheric blocks—high pressure systems that stay in place for weeks, causing heat waves. That really got me interested. I used physical principles and computer models to understand atmospheric motions. That project started my career. I then went to Caltech to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental Science.
What is your greatest ambition?
I would like to develop a set of physics laws that govern Earth’s climate. Of course, that’s probably beyond the five-year research scope of the Packard Fellowship!
How do you hope your research will help the world, particularly with regard to climate change?
My research focuses on improving our understanding of rainstorms and climate change. For example, I study what environmental factors control the spatial scale of hurricanes, how intense rainstorms change with global warming, and how the change in rainstorms, in turn, shapes the Earth’s climate. I hope that improved physical understanding could lead to more accurate forecasts of extreme events, such as hurricanes.