Climate: Past, Present & Future

Life of a Climate scientist presents Holly Kyeore Han

Life of a Climate scientist presents Holly Kyeore Han

About the blog series: Life of a Climate scientist

Life of a Climate Scientist is a new blog series started by the EGU Climate Division. The main focus of this series is to provide a platform for climate scientists to tell their stories of life in research. We will be covering a wide-range of subjects, from their scientific endeavors and maintaining work-life balance to challenges they have faced during their career path and the pandemic.



Holly Kyeore Han (Ph.D. candidate)

The outreach team of the EGU Climate Division had an opportunity to interview Holly Kyeore Han (she/her), originally from South Korea, second-generation academic, who is pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Natalya Gomez‘s group in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at McGill University in Canada. Holly is a paleo-climate scientist, specializing in understanding the interactions between ice sheets, sea level and the solid Earth in the Northern Hemisphere over the past glacial cycles. We managed to ask a wide range of questions from her scientific endeavors, her experiences during the pandemic to how she maintains work-life balance.


Q1: Hey Holly! Could you tell us who you are and what led you to the path of becoming a Climate scientist?

“Hi! I am Holly, a graduate student specializing in paleoclimate in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at McGill University in Canada. I come from South Korea, and I am passionate about learning about anything/everything, taking adventures, soccer, and Taekwondo. I embrace challenges, both physical and mental, in new and diverse fields as I always learn so much directly and indirectly through these experiences.

I think I found the path of becoming a climate/geo-scientist thanks to my passion for learning and challenging myself. I studied physics (major) and math (minor) in my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto (U of T), Canada. This decision was an interesting one because I wasn’t really good at physics back in high school, and I thought I didn’t really like the subject. There were other subjects like chemistry, biology, psychology, history and physical education that I liked and did much better than physics. But somehow, I wanted to pursue fundamental sciences in university and build good understanding of nature before studying other subjects. The fact that I was not good at physics and that it was not my favourite subject in high school challenged me in the decision process. But I accepted the challenge because I had a long-term vision. It turns out that not long after I started university, I fell in love with physics: “seeing” nature through the language of math was just so fascinating to me! I still found the subject very difficult, and surviving the program was very tough. Although, I never once thought I wanted to quit. I realized later that I didn’t enjoy physics before my experiences because high-school physics is more about solving problems using equations without understanding the derivations. It was not surprising to me that I didn’t enjoy the things that I didn’t understand. Looking back, I am so glad that I gave myself a chance to discover the beauty of physics.

In the third year of my undergraduate degree, I realized that I wanted to keep learning and do research in graduate school. Choosing a field to specialize in, I wanted to combine my academic background and my passion outside academia, which is taking adventures on Earth. Then it just naturally and ideologically came together; I discovered the path to the field of geophysics. I first started as a Master’s student working with Natalya Gomez, my current supervisor, to taste what it is like to do research. Then I continued onto do a fast-tracked Ph.D. degree after realizing that I enjoyed research and working with Natalya.”


Q2: Tell me about your exciting work! What is your recent achievement?

“My research focuses on exploring how ice sheets, the solid Earth and sea level changed during the last glacial cycle and how they interacted with each other. Evolution (advance or retreat) of ice sheets cause spatially non-uniform sea-level changes because it perturbs the Earth’s gravitational field, rotation and the solid surface (this is also called “GRD effects”; Gravitational, Rotational and Deformational effects). The viscoelastic rheological properties of solid Earth cause the solid surface to deform over tens of thousands of years towards isostatic adjustment. In turn, these effects influence ice sheet dynamics through sea-level feedback and solid Earth deformational feedback. My Ph.D. project focuses on improving our understanding of the role of GRD effects on the evolution of the Northern Hemisphere Ice Sheets during the last glacial cycle, a period during which global mean sea level fluctuated by around 130 meters in response to changes in global ice sheets. My work also focuses on improving state-of-art coupled ice-sheet – sea-level modelling such that the feedbacks between ice sheets and GRD effects are captured in higher temporal resolution than was previously feasible in glacial-cycle timescale simulations.

My recent achievement is good and steady progress that I have been making on completing my Ph.D. thesis while maintaining balanced life that keeps me healthy and happy during these difficult times, e.g., the last push before the thesis submission during a global pandemic. I am looking to defend sometime in April or early May this year and continue on as a postdoctoral researcher in the climate modeling team at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S., where I’ll be contributing to advancing the ocean and the cryosphere model components of the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM). Having found the exciting postdoctoral position is another recent achievement I am very thankful for.”


Q3: What keeps you motivated in science?

“That is a great question! To answer this, I have to start from a more general perspective. There was a time when I was diligently searching for a definition of a good life and for the ways to live the good life. So far, I’ve come to define under my own perspective and vision that a good life is where I keep learning, exploring, developing, loving, giving back and contributing to society. On the matter of ‘how to live a good life’: it can be simple yet challenging, as ‘all you have to do’ is to live every day well. Figuring this out actually took me quite a long time because I was searching for something more complex and grand than living a good daily life to live a good whole life. Upon this realization, my only life goal has become to “live a good everyday life as consistently as possible, and in the end, live a good life.

Then, while pursuing my Ph.D. degree, I have come to realize that being a scientist is one great and efficient way to live a good life. I can write an essay about this [ha ha], but here is a summary of why I think being a scientist helps me to achieve my life goal:

Being a scientist by nature involves learning, exploring and creating. It also challenges me to be brave and persevere through a problem, be a good colleague and a friend. It gives me chances to travel (through conferences) and meet brilliant scientists who are simultaneously genuine and great humans. Being a scientist also means that I can be a storyteller, a writer, an artist (through figures), a historian (as a paleoclimate scientist, I get to bridge the past and the present to look into the future) and last but not least, a philosopher. Besides the easy and obvious answer that my research topic is interesting, I enjoy delving deeper and deeper to find the meaning of my research for myself and the community. All of these aspects make it so enjoyable and meaningful to be a scientist, at least for me so far.

Through this thought process, I find that doing science makes a great “tool” for me to live a good life. I want to keep on developing and refining this “tool.” And this is why I am motivated in research and science.”


Q4: How do you maintain work-life balance?

“I am going to first change the wording slightly and use “work – non-work balance” instead if that’s okay. It is difficult for me to separate work and life because work is a tool that I use to live a good life as I previously mentioned.

The first thing is to have a balanced mind that recognizes and embraces joy and responsibilities for the things that make up my daily life. Having this kind of a balanced mind, I am naturally led to give equal value and thus priority to work and non-work activities. I also try to increase productivity on both sides by improving my organizational and planning skills, getting solid workouts, along with healthy eating and sleeping habits. Secondly, I try to have components of my work and non-work activities positively influence each other. I love training, playing sports and taking adventures as much as I love science. These non-work activities help me to stay healthy and be productive at work. Also, going out and seeing nature after seeing it only through the lens of computational work helps me to appreciate nature more. This in turn motivates me at work again. So, there is a positively feedback between work and non-work activities. I sometimes need to tweak and undergo iterations of how to balance both sides. This also applies to relationships: superficial or toxic relationships can’t last long and can break balance or damage the quality of life. There are always small and big challenges in life, so I try to maintain the balance with constant adjustments based on those two principles – having a balanced mind and having the work and non-work activities positively influence each other.”


Q5: How did the pandemic impact your work and your life?

“The global pandemic definitely had an impact on my work and my life. Although, I have found ways to turn the situation around and play it to my advantage. I was supposed to be going for a research visit to Norway in March last year. Norway closed its borders a week before my departure date, and then my university shut down two days later. So instead of flying to Norway, I flew home to South Korea and stayed there with my family for six months until September. It was my first time in 10 years that I got to spend more than a month with my family, and we cherished our time together. The fact is that the research project I was going to do in Norway was not entirely necessary for my thesis and that I am a numerical modeler helped me to minimize the damage done to my work during the pandemic. There were some difficulties in interacting and coordinating meetings with my advisor and the group because of the 13-hour time difference we had between South Korea and Canada. I usually had meetings until midnight, but it really was a minor challenge compared to others. Some of my colleagues and friends have had direct impacts on their work due to changes in fieldwork, lab times, increased responsibilities in parenting, etc. Not long after I came back in September, Canada was hit by a second wave, and things shut down again. This time, I decided to be a Ph.D. nomad and went to a small town in the eastern Quebec where I can be close to nature. I walked along by sea every day, hiked every week and got lots of work done. I relocated myself to another place two weeks ago. Even though, I have been relocating quite often, I have been alone and technically isolated for months now. My closest contacts have been cashiers at grocery stores; I feel confident that I am keeping myself and others safe while still exploring outside my comfort zone. Other big things I’ve lost due to pandemic are the gym and sports. I miss lifting heavy weights, climbing, intense interval workouts, running around and kicking a ball around. But I have accepted the situation and took this time as a cross-training/recovery season: I do functional home workouts and daily yoga sessions these days to develop and heal my body. I feel my knees have been appreciating the gentle treatment on them.

I know things have been easier for me because I have no dependents and have no properties/machines to manage. I remind myself to acknowledge the challenges and threats others are experiencing in many different forms because of the pandemic. I try to look around and support others in ways that I can.”


Q6: Did you face any other challenges while pursuing your degree?

“I have faced three major challenges while pursuing my Ph.D. degree. The first challenge has been on being a true scholar. Being in academia, I realized that my curiosity was bound to the field of my research. Ideally, I want my curiosity about nature/science to be free and genuine: I don’t want it to be constrained by the field, by an institution or a status I belong to. So, I am conscious about being led by curiosity while trying to figure out how, or whether to guide the curiosity.  If anybody has any opinion or advice on this topic, I would love to talk to them.

Another challenge was to find ways to contribute to society through my work; as much as I want to feel pure joy in doing science, I care about positively influencing the community outside that of my research community. When my perspective was narrower than now before, I was trying to achieve this goal only by finding and answering research questions through which I can simultaneously contribute to society while satisfying my curiosity. Finding such research questions can be tough, especially when the deliverables of one’s research are not immediately relevant to present-day society. I was stuck at this problem for more than a year. Then, a conversation I had with my undergraduate advisor/mentor (Sabine Stanley, a planetary physicist now at Johns Hopkins University) one day motivated me to see many other ways to be connected to and contribute to society. Such ways include teaching, outreach activities and taking actions in ongoing matters such as justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. These days, I share my stories and voice on non-scientific subjects with society more often than I used to in different ways (like talks and interviews, writing op-eds on media or simply writing on my SNS feed).

The third challenge I faced during my Ph.D. degree was a health-related matter. I suffered from a major concussion for about a year, followed by years of lingering symptoms. It happened during a soccer game, where I was playing for McGill women’s soccer team against another university in Winter 2017. I got whiplashed after getting blasted on the face by a soccer ball. I had to take few months off and my Ph.D. Qualification exam had to be delayed. A concussion is such a tricky injury. You can’t see the injury, so you look normal from the outside, and it is very difficult for other people, including yourself, to understand the condition you are in at the moment. It’s tough to assess a threshold to the symptoms, so it’s really easy to push yourself and delay the recovery. Most of my symptoms went away in the first two years, but I still feel that some part of my cognitive abilities had not yet come back; maybe they will never come back. My brain doesn’t feel as sharp as before, I lose the logic in the train of thought way easier and my memory got much worse than before. I have to put in an extra effort than before to perform at the same level. Are these real or placebo effects? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. I got frustrated many times, but I’ve moved on quickly and thought to myself, I will do what I can, with what I have. If I experience more challenges and difficulties in certain aspects than before, I will accept the challenges and work with them. There is no other way. I just need to treat the process as a life-long rehab/training for my brain. I strongly feel that I have been making a consistent progress, and I am really thankful for it.”


Q7: What advice would you give to people who are interested in pursuing your line of work?

“With my limited experience and knowledge, I think that it could not be timelier than now to be in the field of paleoclimate science. There are so many pieces of the puzzle in the Earth’s past climate that, once put together, will help us better understand the present and project the future. Being in this field gives us a wide range of opportunities to undertake cool and important research projects, with which we can inform policy that will help to save our planet!

Lastly, I want to say one more thing that is instead a general point; I think that being in academia as a graduate student and beyond is not only about producing cool research results and using or developing cool methods. Of course, these are the cores. But, it is also about actively discovering and expanding curiosity about nature, learning how to learn, learning to build professional and trustful relationships with others, finding yourself a place from which you can connect and contribute to your community and the world through your work, activities and service. It is also about your consistent growth as a scientist and a human being. I want to share the advice that I always give to myself: Remember to bring up your head, look around and see the bigger picture, take every challenge that arise in your scientific journey as an opportunity to grow as a scientist and a human with given time and resources, and keep progressing in your scientific endeavour with awareness and anticipation. Good luck with your journey!”

If this interview sparked your interest, you can follow Holly on Twitter @hollyhan2015.

She is a Ph.D. candidate in the field of biogeochemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and part of the editorial team for the EGU climate division blog. Her research combines experiments and models to understand the ancient marine iron cycle.

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