A life of curiosity leads to discoveries and honors for Ruby Leung

Ruby Leung loves to ask questions. It started in her high school in Hong Kong, where she also got interested in science.

“I was one of those kids in science who was always curious. And then you can find the answers, ”said Leung, atmospheric scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington. “Of course, after you answer a question, you have the next question. It’s a quest. A quest to dig deeper and try to get the truth.

Leung’s quest has led to many accolades, including today’s announcement that she has been named a Distinguished Scientific Fellow of the Department of Energy (DOE) Science Office. This honor, authorized by the America COMPETES Act, is awarded to national laboratory scientists with outstanding results and provides each fellow with $ 1 million over three years to support activities that develop, sustain and promote scientific and academic excellence. in the DOE Office of Science. research. Leung was one of three DOE National Laboratory scientists named DOE Office of Science Distinguished Scientists.

Leung was honored for pioneering new approaches in climate modeling, uncovering unexpected impacts of regional climate change, and understanding extreme weather events and their future changes.

“These Distinguished Scientist Fellows advance the science behind some of our nation’s greatest challenges, from understanding the impact of climate change to developing the bioeconomy and pursuing fusion as a future source of energy,” said said US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “I look forward to their continued success in delivering impactful results, as they also strive to inspire and guide a new and diverse generation of scientists. “

Leung joined PNNL in 1991 and has grown steadily as an internationally renowned atmospheric scientist specializing in climate modeling and the water cycle.

“I am deeply honored to be named a Distinguished Researcher,” said Leung, a Battelle member who in 2016 was appointed Chief Climate Scientist to lead the Accelerated Climate Modeling for Energy project. “I am touched by any reward for a job that I consider essential. As I said before, since joining PNNL, I have been fortunate to have the Ministry of Energy to support my research interests, and I am very grateful for that.

One of Leung’s central roles is as Chief Scientist of the Energy Exascale Earth System Model, the DOE’s cutting-edge modeling project designed to represent human-Earth system processes on DOE’s next-generation high-performance computers. . The award announced today follows one announced just a month ago when the American Meteorological Society named Leung its recipient of the 2022 Hydrological Sciences Medal.

“The DOE and PNNL have benefited greatly from Ruby’s inspiring leadership in atmospheric science,” said Steven Ashby, director of the PNNL laboratory. “Ruby has the admirable and valuable ability to conduct groundbreaking research while fostering collaboration across disciplines and institutions. Ruby deserves a great deal of credit for the esteemed stature that PNNL’s atmospheric science research enjoys today. We are proud to call her a colleague.

An early interest in science

Leung, whose father made and sold hats and whose mother was a housewife, did not envision a life in science until his late teens. One of five children, three sisters and a brother, Leung was the only person in the family interested in science. She graduated in 1984 with honors in Physics and Statistics from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, then taught high school physics for two years.

His interest in physics grew, particularly in fluid dynamics – the flow of liquids and gases and, ultimately, the factors that create time. Daily climate models did not interest him as much as longer-scale atmospheric models. She chose Texas A&M University to pursue her curiosity and left Hong Kong in 1986.

In 1991, she had obtained a master’s and a doctorate in atmospheric sciences. She thanked her doctoral supervisor, Gerald North, for refining her perspective on climate science. She wrote her thesis on “Atmospheric variability on a zonally symmetrical terrestrial planet”, which investigated the effects of external forcing on the atmosphere. For her postgraduate degree, she co-authored an article titled “A Study of Long-Term Climate Change in a Simple Seasonal Nonlinear Climate Model”.

“After I came to Texas A&M, I heard about this new professor who was studying climate,” Leung said of North. “I liked the type of research he was doing, which was on the energy of the climate system. So, for my thesis and master’s thesis, I looked at the predictability of climate. We try to understand how predictable the climate is and what are the processes that control its predictability. We published a study using information theory to quantify climate predictability, the first study to use information theory in climate research.

Leung started working at PNNL midway through the end of his thesis. She smiles at the memory of impressing new colleagues with her use of Texas A&M’s supercomputer to run climate simulations. This is standard procedure now, of course, but not then. It has also led to the creation of increasingly sophisticated climate models, essential for predicting climate change.

Evolutionary role of atmospheric science

When Leung arrived at PNNL, the laboratory’s atmospheric science division was only a fraction of its size today. She played a fundamental role in the growth of the division, from its roots as a small group of scientists focused on atmospheric dispersion and boundary layer processes to its current status as one of the first groups of atmospheric science and climate research in the world.

“There were a lot of atmospheric scientists, but none of them were doing climate research,” Leung recalls. “It was just around the time when funding for the study of acid rain was dwindling, which was a really big deal in the 1980s. At the same time, more and more scientists got interested in science. of the climate. “

Leung’s early work, then supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, focused on hydroclimate and how mountain water resources vary and change over time. over time. This research, she said, has harnessed and strengthened the capacities she has developed for high-resolution climate modeling and the coupling of earth-atmosphere processes to understand and predict the hydroclimate and its extremes at the junction of earth, water and atmosphere.

While Leung remembers an atmospheric science community that was small, that is not the case today. “The climate community is very big,” she said. “There are people who are interested in studying a wide range of issues, from the effect of carbon dioxide on the climate to how tiny particles in the atmosphere affect clouds and precipitation, how an urban area can affect the climate, how the atmosphere interacts with the earth. and ocean.

“An important role for me now is to work with our scientific community to identify gaps and opportunities to advance our field,” said Leung. “Driven by the societal need to deal with climate change, there is a strong demand for climate information. With more demand comes more challenges and responsibilities. Both fundamental and use-inspired research areas are essential parts of climate science going forward, and I look forward to continuing to play a role in advancing both fronts. “

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