The interface between mathematics and earth science: a Q&A with Francisco de Melo Virissimo

Francisco de Melo Virissimo is a Research Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute

Mathematics plays a big role in modern climate science, as climate models are the only tools that allow us to study the future climate under climate change.
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Francisco de Melo Virissimo (picture credit: Dr Daniela Massiceti)

What are you currently researching?

I am a mathematician working in the interface between mathematics and earth science, with a particular interest in ocean and climate phenomena.

Much of my recent work has been on climate prediction, specifically on “what is required for a climate model to provide useful information about the future climate under climate change?”. Answering this question requires understanding what a climate model is, what uncertainties are involved, and what climate “useful information” means to different stakeholders.

Why did you choose this area of study?

It was completely by chance. In July 2017, I was a student sitting at a mathematics conference in Pittsburgh, United States, where Emily Shuckburgh gave a prize-winning keynote talk “From Flatland to Our Land: A Mathematician’s Journey through Our Changing Planet” (available here).

As the talk progressed, I was taken by the thought of “Wow, that is the kind of stuff I want to do!”. I found it very inspiring to see someone being a professional mathematician, but also a hands-on earth scientist doing fieldwork in Antarctica and wanted to know more about it. Fast-forward 18 months and I was starting a job in marine biogeochemistry at the UK’s National Oceanography Centre.

You recently won a bronze medal at the STEM for BRITAIN awards in Parliament. Can you tell us a bit more about your work in this area and about the role mathematics can play in climate science?

Mathematics plays a big role in modern climate science, as climate models are the only tools that allow us to study the future climate under climate change. But these models have some important mathematical properties, such as chaotic behaviour and high complexity, which constrain their use in practice.

A key question in that context is: how do you obtain useful information from climate models given these constraints? In a recent paper, we combined concepts from mathematics and climate modelling to produce a novel object, which represents the evolution of future climate conditioned on the best knowledge available today. We used this to investigate how different sources of uncertainty can impact the model outcome, laying down some foundations for better experimental design and uncertainty quantification.

How will your research have a wider impact on society? Can you give some real-world examples of the impact your research will have?

This research impacts several sectors of society. Decision makers in government, industry and academia increasingly rely on future climate information, and it influences how much premium insurance we pay, how long-term investments are made, and many other high-profile decisions that are worth trillions of dollars.

What have been the highlights of your research work so far?

I have been fortunate to present my research all over the world, and to be part of some memorable events. A personal highlight was presenting at the 2018 International Congress of Mathematicians – the most iconic conference in mathematics, where the Fields Medal is awarded.

Another personal highlight was my recent paper on the ocean carbon cycle. Using some mathematical insights, I managed to solve a longstanding question regarding the geographical variability in the efficiency in which carbon is transferred from the surface to the deep ocean.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

There were many, but one worth mentioning was transitioning from pure mathematics to marine biogeochemistry. Although learning the subject was not an issue, there was a steep learning curve in terms of communication, as mathematicians and oceanographers think quite differently generally. This setting pushed me beyond my comfort zone and challenged my ideas about collaborative work. But that experience enhanced my communication skills, which now enables me to effectively communicate to a much broader audience than previously.

What advice would you give to prospective students on the most effective way to approach research and keep stress levels down?

Bear in mind that research is usually a slow process and requires patience, trial and error, hard and consistent work. So do not get seduced by the idea of ‘genius inspiration’ and of solving complicated problems too easily, or achieving unrealistic productivity levels – these might make fascinating fiction stories, but are far from true.

In a few words, what is the best thing about studying at LSE?

In two words: the students!