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Young researchers in the spotlight: Kristiina Verro

12 February 2024

We are writing profiles on early career researchers to make our younger scientists and their research more visible. It’s Kristiina’s turn in the spotlight!

Kristiina, please introduce yourself and tell us about yourself – who are you? where do you work?

I am Kristiina Verro, a postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands. I have been working in the Polar climate research field since August 2022. Before that… drum-roll… I was an astrophysicist. I was studying stars and modelling stellar populations! However, I felt that I needed to pursue a science with higher social and environmental responsibility and impact, especially in light of the climate crisis. So, I switched to climate research! PolarRES is my dive into Polar climatology and Earth sciences in general. I guess you can say that I came down to Earth!

What do you do for PolarRES? Is it the first project you’ve worked on?

I am working within the WP5 of PolarRES, studying Antarctic processes, particularly extreme temperature events over the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as the characteristics of the Antarctic sea ice within various regional atmospheric, oceanic and coupled models. I am a regional climate modeller, mostly concentrating on one model – HARMONIE-Climate (HCLIM). Regional climate models are very nuanced, and we are improving HCLIM so that it can be used within PolarRES next to other regional climate models to produce reliable climate projections for the Arctic and Antarctic.

I have been in astrophysics-related international collaborations before, but PolarRES has made me particularly happy because the people involved work very well together. PolarRES consists of scientists with various areas of expertise and we all complement each other in different ways. Research is carried out with enthusiasm and synergy! I feel that even with an astrophysics background, I am useful, I fit in, and I learn a lot.

What is the most interesting thing you learned working on PolarRES?

Modelling complex physical systems, such as our atmosphere or oceans, or stars and galaxies for that matter, takes enormous time and effort. Each model has its own set of assumptions, simplifications, and parametrisations on top of the «general» physical basis. Complex models depend on the success of the smallest components, but perfection is the enemy of good enough and comes with high computational and manpower costs. 

I personally love the details! It is fascinating for me to do model-to-model comparisons, and testing models with observations, to see exactly how well the models describe the key physical and chemical processes that determine the state of the atmosphere, oceans, and sea ice. Which line of model code is responsible for what physical representation? Where do the model-to-model differences come from and how we can improve our models? What is the ground truth? Modelling work reveals new understandings of physical and chemical processes at play and also leads to more reliable climate projections in the Polar regions.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Are you still a researcher? What are you working on?

I see myself as a Polar climate researcher in 5 years and as an old professor when I am close to retirement age! I am a scientist to the bone. I fell in love with the extreme Polar regions of Earth, with its complicated interplay between atmosphere, oceans, snow and ice. I hope to have the chance to continue studying these extreme environments. 

In the PolarRES community, I am a regional climate modeller. Before that, I was a stellar population modeller. We say “Once a modeller, always a modeller”, as in you cannot become just a model user anymore – the urge to deep-dive into model code is too strong. However, I was trained also as an observational astronomer. I spent hours observing with large telescopes and I am also accustomed to working with observational data. I miss hands-on work “in the field”. Within the next five years, I hope to get some fieldwork experience. Modellers and observers work hand in hand. Scientists need experience in both to understand the needs and limits of model work and observations.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I loved nature and I spent a lot of time outdoors. Lakes, forests and bogs surround my hometown Võru, in southern Estonia. The summers are pleasantly warm, and the winters can be bitterly cold. Growing up, I didn’t have one dream, because I was curious about everything around me. 

When it was time to decide, I went to study geography at Tartu University, just because I loved nature (and because I was scared of physics studies). But, there were too many human geography and too few physics courses for my taste, so I switched to physics studies. Allured by the clear night skies of Estonia and good outreach efforts by Tartu Observatory, astrophysics was an easy choice after that.

But, even as a child, I was very environmentally conscious. The urge to study nature around me and take environmental action was always there and it grew until I could not deny it. And here I am!

Who is your science idol? Someone you wish you could have a conversation with (from the past or contemporary).

To name a famous science idol – Carl Sagan! His calm way and curious manner of describing the Universe in the Cosmos series influenced me to become an astrophysicist. But, there are three women, who have been my «more realistic» science idols. Dr Tiina Liimets, Dr Ariane Lançon and Dr Yogita Shukla are not famous, but they have had more influence on me as a young researcher than any other (besides my supervisors) and I hold them forever in my heart! Not only I can have deep scientific conversations with them anytime I want (well, some scheduling is needed), but I can also directly draw from their experiences as contemporary women researchers.

What cool Arctic/Antarctica fact is your go-to icebreaker?

The ice sheet that covers Antarctica is several kilometres thick – almost 5 kilometres at the maximum. That’s a lot of ice! I find that mind-blowing!