Joanna Young


BS: Astrophysics, University of British Columbia, 2008.

BA: Philosophy of Science, University of British Columbia, 2008.

MS: Geophysics, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2013.

PhD Student: University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Joanna describes herself as an outdoors addict with a background in physics and a love of mountains. She is a PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, studying how the glaciers of Alaska are shrinking in climate change and acting as one of the greatest contributors to sea level rise. She also punctuates this work with numerous environmental education and science communication activities. 

What brought you to astrophysics?

I grew up looking at the night sky a lot. All of the philosophical questions come out when you look at the sky. What does it all mean? I thought I would give it a try. During my 3rd year in my undergrad I also decided to add a philosophy of science degree, because I was missing a big part of the big picture.

One class I really enjoyed was on the philosophical implications of general relativity. It was a class with half physicists and half philosophers onboard. Some people really understood the math but did not really think about the implications and, on the other hand, some people had really been thinking through the discontinuity of space-time, and challenging concepts like that, but did not know the math behind it. The discussions we had were very neat. 

What is your philosophy of science?

I have many. One of the most crucial points is doing it properly, correctly and honestly, in a transparent way, where you are not trying to justify things that are questionable, or to mask things. I feel torn sometimes when I see papers that get publicity, papers with very sexy plots that are trying to present the material in a cool sci-fi fashion, but when you are trying to dig deeper into it, you understand that they neglected a lot and used too many assumptions. I am on the side that you need to be more cautious and to stick to the integrity of the data.

When you do field science, it involves very complicated data that you are collecting from a very complicated system. This system often does not want to behave the way you want it to, or what you expected it to be. Making interpretations of data like this involves making your very best calculated guess. There is so much involved in making this guess, the assumptions, the methods you chose, the results you can pull out the data. It is important to be very transparent about those things and leave it for discussion. It forces people to be humble, to say to critics or reviewers: “You have a good point.” Embracing the subjective side of science is very important in my opinion. 

What was your way of transitioning from astrophysics to glaciology?

Joanna is   i  nstalling instruments to monitor local weather conditions on the Jarvis Glacier in the Alaska Range,  photoes by      U AF photographer Todd Paris

Joanna is installing instruments to monitor local weather conditions on the Jarvis Glacier in the Alaska Range, photoes by UAF photographer Todd Paris

I realized that there was not a lot of looking at the sky in astrophysics. That was disappointing. I realized that, if I continued with astrophysics, my life would involve a lot of sitting by the computer.

One of my sisters got her Ph.D. studying deer and moose in Canada. I was her field assistant for two summers. We were hiking and backpacking to collect data all summer. It was lots of fun! I started thinking: how can I combine physics and fieldwork, to get outside to very beautiful places? I really love being outside, it is a very important part of who I am. I then worked for a glaciologist at the University of Calgary for 4 months and met many grad students who were really cool people; it was a good blend of real science geeks who were also really obsessive about the outdoors.  I thought: “Science in the outdoors? You can really do that?” Glaciology seemed like a really cool way to apply physics to a different and complicated problem.

I then went traveling for a year, but was thinking about applying to grad school in the back of my head. Then I found a University of Alaska, and my eyes got huge! I got really excited about Alaska. I applied to a bunch of schools, but I was not going to go anywhere but Alaska!

Is it true that once you have done physics you can do anything?

Being overjoyed at the Gulkana Glacier in the Alaska Range,  photo by Bryce Weibley

Being overjoyed at the Gulkana Glacier in the Alaska Range, photo by Bryce Weibley

I think that it definitely did not close any doors for me.  Physics degrees show to people that you are a problem-solver and if you are faced with something you don’t know how to do, eventually, you will figure it out. Physics degrees also show that you are able to teach yourself along the way to solve problems. It was much easier for me to transition from astrophysics to geophysics than it would be to switch from geology to geophysics without having any physics background. Most of people in our group come from physics background as well. Physic gives you a lot of other opportunities.

My other sister - yes, I have two sisters and both are doctors - did her Ph.D. in quantum computing. She is amazing! After she finished her degree, she got a job working for an economics consulting company. They were looking for people who have proven themselves as being able to solve complicated problems and to teach themselves whatever they need to know in order to be able to succeed.  

My undergrad was very hard. The most personally challenging years of my life, because all I did all the time was study. I felt very resentful for how much work I had to put into my degree. I did not have a good work-life balance in my undergrad, I did not go outside enough, did not exercise enough, was tired all of the time. Graduate school for me was much easier. I am not one of those people to whom it comes very naturally. I had to work my butt off to get through physics courses. I wanted to find a more natural work/life balance. Life in Alaska has been great to me. I found my community of people here who accepted me as a whole person and not just as a grad student.

To get where I am today, I mostly followed some very exciting opportunities as they came along.

After hearing that both of your sisters have Ph.Ds., is it even a question if you had a role model...?

Yes! My sisters have been huge role models for me. We have been really close to each other. They always joked that I do not have to do Ph.D. just because they did. I knew it was true, but I wanted to continue in school anyway.  The benefit of having close siblings or friends who went through grad school is that you learn what the good stuff is to look for and what pitfalls to avoid. I had a sense of what I was getting myself into. When I worked with my older sister, being her field assistant, I saw how it is to design a field project, to organize logistics, to read through literature, to look for sites and funding opportunities. I was exposed to a big part of Ph.D. process before I had even finished my undergrad.

Role models are so critical, especially for women in science. It is huge and undervalued. It is crucial for other women to see successful female scientists.

There were not many other girls in my undergrad, and we stuck together like glue. Astronomy is usually better than pure physics. That was the case for my undergrad. In physics groups the percent of females was about 20% and in astronomy it was about 30%.

I often felt that my test scores did not just represent me, but represented all womankind! It was exhausting! So much pressure! It was too much of an unnecessary pressure for a 22 year-old. I definitely felt the lack of women in my program and not enough female faculty members to look up to either. The few that were there were too busy and overwhelmed that they were not very supportive.

Doing point measurements of mass input through snowfall on the Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park,  photo by J. T. Thomas

Doing point measurements of mass input through snowfall on the Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park, photo by J. T. Thomas

Once I gave a presentation about some satellite sensor. At the end of the presentation a female professor told me: “I don’t think you really got it.” I said: “Ok,” and paused, waiting for her to offer me help, to tell me to come to her office and to talk about it, so I could fully understand it. She did not use that chance, and that was the end of our conversation. From that time on I made myself a promise that I would never do anything like that, when I am in that position! We need encouragement, because we already have enough discouragement. We discourage ourselves enough. To be around super confident men is enough discouragement.  I think we need and we can do better! 

I really have encouragement now. There are a lot of female scientists in my glaciology group right now. I am in an abnormal situation. My advisor is a female. She is a huge role model for me.  She cares about me as a full person; she wants me to have the experience and the career opportunity that I want, and not just using me as a graduate student slave. It has been crucial to me.

I am now trying to be a role model for a program that is called Girls on Ice.

We take 9 girls out to a glacier for 8 days. We teach them about glaciology, climate change, the landscape, as well as girl power and self-confidence. They are pushed out of their comfort zone and have a chance to see how much they can grow, learn and succeed. They take a little bit of risk, try new things, struggle and feel challenged. It is not always pretty and easy; we have tears during the program. But at the end of the program, the girls always walk away thinking that they can do so much more than they could ever thought they could do. We create a safe space for them to explore with encouragement. We tell them: “Go and try it, and if you fall down, so what!”

It is not about encouraging them to go into geoscience, but empowering them to think that they can do whatever they want to. It is a very competitive program to get into. We are trying to access girls who do not have such opportunities. Often, they are from villages and do not have financial opportunities and access to science outside of their classrooms.

Research in glaciology

I am investigating how the glaciers of Alaska are doing in recent climate change from 2003 to now. I am using satellite data from the NASA GRACE satellites. They are satellites that can measure the local gravity of the Earth. There are two satellites that orbit in tandem, having a really high precision ranger between them to measure the distance between them. When one satellite passes over an area on Earth that has a higher mass concentration, like a mountain range, it speeds up a little, because of the gravitational pull. In that moment the distance between the two satellites changes a tiny bit, until the second satellite also goes over the mountain range. As they have been in operation for 13 years we can see the changes in local gravitational field of the Earth. We can see the changes in the mass of the Alaskan glaciers. The glaciers are melting. There was enough ice lost that we can see the gravity field of Alaska has changed. There is a lot of complicated math and physics that goes into it. I am doing fieldwork and using computational melt modeling to validate the mass loss estimates that we are getting from the satellites.

The average annual mass changes from glacier mass loss for the Gulf of Alaska for 2003 - 2014, expressed as a water equivalent depth, as derived from NASA's GRACE gravimetry satellites

The average annual mass changes from glacier mass loss for the Gulf of Alaska for 2003 - 2014, expressed as a water equivalent depth, as derived from NASA's GRACE gravimetry satellites

When we go on glacier we take point measurements of “mass in” to the glacier and “mass out” of the glacier. “Mass in” is looking at how much snow has fallen at a single spot over the course of the winter. Sometimes that means digging 5 meter pits and doing density measurement vertically through the whole snowpack.  At the same point, over the course of the summer, we measure how much melt happened. In simple language, we drill a very long pole into the glacier and measure how much is sticking out at the beginning of summer, and at the end.  That tells us how much ice has melted. We do have problems with bears sometimes, but rarely. They are very curious when they see strange equipment in the field. One of the ways we can prevent problems is to put lots of bear spray canisters around our equipment, because they like to chew whatever they find, and this is a good way to keep them in line!  There are a lot of data recovery issues. Sometimes you set up this beautiful array of instruments and, when you go back, you get only 50% of what you set up. Some fell down from the wind, some stopped working, and some fell into crevasses. You are always happy with 50%.  We fly helicopters to the glacier. Many glaciers are not safe to ski on, or they are not on the road system, or you cannot land with a fixed-wing airplane. We do have to rely on helicopters to do this kind of work.

What are the possible consequences from glacier melt?

It depends on where you are on the Earth. For people in the Andes and Himalayas, the main consequence will be a lack of water for human use and irrigation. At some point, the glacier gets so small that there is not enough water for those people who rely on it. On another hand, there is sea level rise, which impacts a lot of people on the coast. Only a few meters of sea level rise has the ability to displace 1 billion people, out of 7 billion on our planet! I think we will start to hear more and more in the future about the relocation of people due to sea level rise.

Victoriya Forsythe