Dan Vimont: Climate research and all that jazz

February 7, 2017

Dan Vimont was at a crossroads. With high school graduation approaching, he had been accepted to both the University of Washington, where he planned to study jazz piano, and Gonzaga University, where he considered pursuing physics. His heart said piano, but his head – and a nudge from his parents and other mentors – said physics.

In a last-minute decision, physics reigned, but his love for piano and the mathematical complexities of music remains – a passion he has pursued since childhood.

Dan Vimont
Dan Vimont

Vimont is equally enthusiastic about long-distance trail running (he has completed several marathons and two 50-kilometer competitions) and fly fishing (which he’d rather be doing right now, according to his Twitter profile). His zeal for experiencing nature helped drive his interest in studying climate.

“The reason I got into this field is I love math and I love the outdoors,” he says. “You put those two together, you become a climate scientist, right?” 

A professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UW-Madison since 2003, Vimont’s path to this profession was opened by a family friend who taught at Gonzaga, who upon hearing that Vimont had an interest in physics and meteorology arranged a short meeting between Vimont and a faculty member who led meteorology research. 

“Because of those ten minutes, I ended up going to Gonzaga and studied meteorology with him, and I got excited about the field and the opportunity to bring in undergraduates,” Vimont says. “You realize that the small things you can do for people can have huge consequences later on.”

In January, Vimont became director of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, replacing Professor Jack Williams, who has directed CCR since 2011. In a recent conversation, he discussed his research priorities, public engagement, inclusivity, and more.


As incoming director of CCR, what does this role mean to you?

Vimont: There's a long history in the center of outstanding directors and outstanding climate research. Jack has done an outstanding job of broadening participation in CCR; he's broadened what we do and who we work with. I see my role moving forward as trying to capitalize on the incredible foundation that's been established in good climate science and in breadth. How do we ensure that this broadening of membership leads to research that capitalizes on what we can do as a center? We can bring people together across a variety of disciplines and we have a lot of experience doing that.


What would you say the research center means to climate scientists around the world, and how can it maintain that regard and stature?

I think the Center for Climatic Research is very well known for its paleoclimate research. John Kutzbach established that at its offset, and Reid Bryson, as well. Jack Williams and Zhengyu Liu have both continued that excellence. The people doing research in that area are doing excellent work, so I want to make sure that continues.

I would also like to see CCR be broadly known in other fields, one of those being regional climate impacts. We have an immense amount of expertise – I'd say novel skill in terms of intellectual resources – in thinking in very interdisciplinary ways about how climate interacts with a variety of systems. We're doing that right now, working with people around the world on climate impacts related to dust, related to El Nino in South America, and local research here in Wisconsin and around the Midwest. I would like to see CCR broaden its reputation in that area.


Could you share a bit about your own research and directions you see your work heading

About half of what I do is related to understanding the mechanisms in the atmosphere and ocean that interact to produce variations in our climate, and the other half of what I do is more related to climate impacts and how we deal with them.

What I've been really interested in lately is developing tools that allow us to understand how different structures evolve in dynamical systems. This is referred to as ‘sensitivities’ in our field. You have a final condition; suppose you want to grow an El Niño event – what conditions exist nine months ahead of time that optimally develop toward an El Niño event? If you know that, then you can look for these kinds of conditions, because that gives a clue as to whether or not an El Nino event is likely to develop. I'm starting to take that paradigm and think of it in a much broader sense, and for very different applications.

On the other side of things, I really like thinking about how my work as a climate scientist can contribute to thinking about regional climate impacts. With the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), we've developed at CCR a set of regional climate projections that are based on a probabilistic framework. This allows an incredible amount of flexibility in the way we look at different climate impacts, because climate impacts are amazingly diverse – what one person needs is totally different from what another person needs. So, rather than recreating the wheel every time, we have a methodology for producing a set of data that is incredibly flexible and can be incorporated into a variety of different products. This methodology wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the conversations I get to have with other scientists in CCR and around the region.


You continue to play a foundational role in WICCI. Why is this initiative important?

WICCI is a co-production of knowledge. It’s not the university taking information to people and showing them what to do with it; it’s the university working with people to identify what questions they have, the gaps in our knowledge, and how we move forward together to try to address those. So in my mind, it’s kind of a two-way Wisconsin Idea.

The work that we've been doing with fisheries biologists at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, identifying the vulnerability of trout, is a classic example. After developing projections around trout habitat in the state, biologists went to the Driftless Area and asked stakeholders, “What are your priorities for conservation planning based on this information?” and then used that as a guideline. But in the process, I learn from them too – what are new research needs and priorities?

We're working with Native tribes right now, which I'm very excited about. Too often, people focus on the economic impact of climate change and it's really hard to put a dollar value to someone's culture. This brings in a completely different dimension of value, so I'm very glad that groups like the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission have been able to use our data and that we're working with them to try to identify how we can provide information for their conservation priorities.


You mention on your website that working with students is one of the biggest highlights for you as a professor. What makes mentoring students so valuable?

Working with both undergraduate and graduate students is incredibly fulfilling for me. The undergraduates I have worked with go on to graduate school and do great research, so seeing how important that interaction is in terms of informing their long-term interest and developing excitement for our field, that's very exciting for me.  

What I really like about working with graduate students is by the late part of their career, I'm no longer training a student, but rather, a colleague and I are coevolving together in our knowledge. There's always a moment when you've told a graduate student to do something and they say, yeah, that didn't pan out, but what we should be doing is this. They come in with their own ideas and I realize that I never would have thought of that. I don't feel like graduate students are necessarily my students; they’re more like my peers. 


It appears that women have been well represented amongst your doctoral students. Is drawing more women into science important to you?

My wife, when she was in high school, wanted to take AP Biology and was told that women don't go into sciences. I have never as a white male been told that my identity precludes me from proceeding in my profession.  

This is foremost on my mind. People's backgrounds inform their approach or inform their experiences with science. In my job, this is something that I am constantly learning about so that I can help create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and valued. I worked with the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) to improve the gender distribution of our department’s colloquium series, I've participated in training for gender inclusivity in hiring, I make a point to try to bring this into my mentoring of other faculty, and I'm currently taking a course on inclusivity and diversity in teaching – thinking about how we as a campus can better serve our diverse population.  

Part of this is because I feel it's the right thing to do, but another part of this is it's a reality that our world is diverse, and that’s exciting. All of us need to be thinking about what backgrounds people bring to a conversation, the biases that we bring, and how we move beyond that and work together to create a community where people feel included. I’m in this job to learn more about our world, and what better way to do that than to learn from the diverse set of experiences and expertise that we all bring to the table?