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Sarah Kapnick
Katie Valentine

Sarah Kapnick

Dr. Sarah Kapnick is the deputy division leader and research physical scientist at the Seasonal to Decadal Variability and Predictability Division of NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) in Princeton, N.J. There, she and her team create global prediction systems to predict climate on three-month to multi-decade timescales. 

Sarah's expertise is the hydroclimate—which encompasses anything in the climate system relating to water—with a special emphasis on snow, precipitation extremes, mountain hydroclimate and water resources, and financial impacts of climate prediction and variability.

What drew you to your current career or field?

I was always a math and science oriented student, but I didn’t really know a career like mine at NOAA existed. I majored in theoretical mathematics and finance in college, planning for a career in finance relating to the insurance/reinsurance industry—it’s what I thought someone like me should pursue if they are good at math and are interested in risk management. On a whim, I took a class in physical oceanography in college that led to undergraduate research with NOAA and a love of researching extreme weather and climate science.

After working for a few years covering financial institutions and developing risk management strategies for insurance and reinsurance companies, I realized I was more interested in the underlying science influencing my financial work. I returned to graduate school and started a postdoc not knowing what I would do next (be it science or finance). I became so interested in my scientific research and the mission of NOAA that I have stayed along my current career path. I didn’t set out in college or even graduate school to be a scientist, but found my love of it over time by trying different career paths and finding a deep passion in extreme weather and climate prediction and variability.

What projects or research are you working on now?

I am working on improving seasonal to multi-seasonal (many seasons or years) prediction of western U.S. snowpack and hydroclimate. This has been an ongoing interest and work of mine since my PhD at UCLA. I see improving predictions as an important part of water and hazard management for stakeholders, but also a way to adapt to a changing climate.

I have a multi-year effort with partners at NASA to improve our modeling and understanding of the cryosphere, deposition of light absorbing impurities on snow and glaciers (dust and aerosols, for example) and hydroclimate in high mountain Asia. This project is multifaceted, requiring: a technical approach (improving model code relating to snow), a careful combination of remote sensing and model output, and interdisciplinary work with economists, hazards experts, and local scientific institutions. 

My division at the GFDL is developing a new seasonal prediction system, which requires improving our initialization system (how one starts a prediction system by estimating the current state of climate) and our model (developing a new global coupled model). Our current phase of development has been a multi-year effort for my division and I’m excited to see the system progress and hopefully be put to use as we continue testing. An interesting part of global coupled models and prediction systems is that they are not newly developed from scratch each time, but stand on the shoulders of years to decades of developmental efforts, scientific research, and observing systems. Our ability to make predictions tomorrow depends on this deep and continued history. 

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I am deeply interested in my scientific research, but also how it has the ability to influence our lives, allowing us to make better decisions relating to weather and climate. As a result, I spend my time oscillating between doing my research and communicating it and its applications. I enjoy this balance of work; each part energizes my interest and excitement in pursuing the other. 

As I have gained more experience, I increasingly enjoy training people who are earlier in their career than me. I am amazed by the enthusiasm and passion of students and early career researchers; they make me want to work harder with them and be a better role model myself, reflecting upon the mentorship and help I’ve received over the years.

Who do you look to as a role model and why?

Fellow women in NOAA and at other academic institutions at the same career level or higher have been major role models for me. I can’t name one person, but have found qualities in many people I wish to emulate. I’m amazed by how people work to strike a balance in their careers of pursuing scientific research, travel for work, and family. Examples of hardship or struggles and how people have worked through them have been the most impactful, showing me that careers are not monotonically increasing, but can also have a meandering path with starts, stops, and regressions.

What does success mean to you? 

For me career success is finding work that I find intellectually stimulating and has a positive impact on society. Career success does not happen for me without happiness at home and with my family—I need both to feel successful. If either is lagging, I will reassess what I am doing and work to make a change; I am constantly adjusting my goals and expectations.

What was the best advice ever given to you that helped you become successful? 

Work to define or redefine your job to be the one that you want and fulfills your definition of success; if you can’t do that, find a new job. Some more senior scientists try to give advice of how they found success and how it should be emulated, but if I followed the same path, I would not be happy or define my career as successful. There is structure within our jobs for specific milestones for advancement, but there is a lot of space within that structure to define your job to be the one that you want it to be. 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in your career/field, or in general, and how have you overcome them?

I have had to navigate unwanted sexual advances. I have been underestimated and had my expertise ignored or dismissed. I have been interrupted in meetings more than my male colleagues and have had people try to explain my work when I give presentations (often incorrectly). I have had people try to take my ideas and present them as their own. I have often been the only woman or a minority of women in meetings. To overcome these, I have had to be extremely patient with people, correct them when possible, stand up for myself, and work to exude confidence. I think the hardest thing for women facing these issues earlier in their career is speaking up and standing up for themselves for fear of retaliation. I’m still working on this myself.

What do you hope to accomplish in the future? What do you hope the future for women in science looks like?

I hope to continue to advance my science and see it applied to reduce risks of extreme weather and climate variability and change. I hope to mentor others in my field and see improvements in the representation of women at all career stages.

Looking back, what would you tell yourself when you were 12 years old? Or what advice would you give to a woman just starting out in her career?

To my 12-year-old self: try many different classes and new subjects, you will not know what will inspire you or what the future may hold. 

To a woman starting out in her career: seek out mentors within your organization and externally. For me, some of my strongest champions and role models are at different laboratories, agencies, and institutions. We often struggle with similar issues — being isolated makes it seem like it is only us. 

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