Profile: From Typhoons to ICON—Q&A with Dr. Joanne Wu

Dr. Joanne Wu at the Boston Marathon

Dr. Joanne Wu: I joined SSL in July 2017 as a postdoc, and now I am an assistant research physicist. As part of the ICON science team, my job is to extract information about the upper atmosphere that is embedded in ICON data. I am also in charge of an all-sky camera installed in Antarctica. The amazing auroral activity captured by the camera tells us the story of Earth’s ionosphere responses to the solar wind and its modulation of Earth’s magnetic field.

Karin Hauck: I’m a communications manager with the Multiverse education and outreach group at the Space Sciences Lab.

Karin: Hi Joanne! where did you grow up?
Joanne: I was born and grew up in Taiwan, an island on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco. It is not like here—we are in a sort of tropical and subtropical area, so moving from Taiwan to the Bay Area was quite a big change to me, it’s much colder here.

Karin: Did you like science and/or nature as a child?
Joanne: Yeah, I would say I was more into nature than actual science when I was a kid, because of my dad. He liked to go camping and hiking, and he took us (me, my mom and my brother) basically everywhere on the weekends. We spent a lot of time in the woods or by the ocean. That experience was a very important foundation that led me to getting interested in science, and especially geophysics.

Karin: Do you remember anything that you observed or that intrigued you as a child on these camping trips, perhaps like ocean currents or tide pools?
Joanne: Yeah — not so much during our camping trips, though, but related to a fun thing my dad liked to do when we were kids. Because we were in an area where typhoons are common, when a big typhoon would come — not super big — my dad would take us to a safe place by the sea to watch the crazy wind and waves coming in. That was a very impressive memory to me and it is interesting that severe weather was the first topic I worked on when I started my career in science.

Karin: How about that! So you can see that connection between childhood experiences and what you did later. My dad worked at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA, and he also liked to like observe phenomena like stars, waves, fires. He was also a real fix-it kind of guy, he worked on the family car on the weekends and he kept a lot of things going, machinery and stuff, washing machines, computers…
Joanne: Yes, similarly, my dad has his own little work area in our garage, he has a lot of tools and electrical components where he can fix things like fans, old radios – to me, he can fix anything!

Karin: Were both of your parents scientists?
Joanne: My dad is an electrical engineer. Before his retirement, he was a professor in electrical engineering at a technical college. My mom just retired this month. She worked at Kaohsiung Harbor. Her job was similar to what people do in Department of Motor Vehicles, but for all kinds of fishing ships, transportation ferries and cargo ships!

Karin: Did you have a mentor or a person who inspired you or encouraged you in the sciences, either as a kid or as a high school or college student?
Joanne: Yes, a lot of them! I would say all of my teachers, advisors and professors that taught, guided or advised me in any kind of project, big or small, were all very important to me. If I were to name a couple of them, I would say my thesis advisors, Professor Rue-Ron Hsu in National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) in Taiwan, and Dr. Earle Williams at MIT in Cambridge, MA. Professor Hsu was always very encouraging and gave me the best advice, and another gift from him was his passion for education and outreach. Science is not just a playground for us scientists, we also have a responsibility to introduce the beauty of science and nature to the public, especially to kids. Dr. Williams was my advisor when I went to MIT as a visiting PhD student for a year. He was always asking questions, like non-stop, and trying to solve complicated puzzles using the first principle approach, which means using the basic rules of physics. Earle made me realize what powerful and joyful results that curiosity can lead us to.

Karin: How did you come to Space Sciences Lab?
Joanne: Oh, it’s like an adventure to me! When I was a graduate student in Taiwan, I was lucky to be able to join the second satellite mission of Taiwan, called FORMOSAT-2. Onboard FORMOSAT-2, there was an instrument called ISUAL, the Imager of Sprites and Upper Atmospheric Lightning—and this instrument was built by (SSL’s) Harald Frey, Stephen Mende, and many other engineers at SSL. That’s how I got connected with SSL. I remember well the trip to UC Berkeley campus when I came to San Francisco for the AGU Fall Meeting for the first time, it was exciting to see the home of ISUAL. I never imagined I would become one of SSLers!

Karin: That was good for us!

Joanne: Around the time I finished my PhD in Taiwan, FORMOSAT-2 was sadly decommissioned because of a mechanical problem on the satellite itself—although it worked longer than twice its designated lifetime. Luckily, there was a new mission starting at SSL, so my advisors encouraged me to give it a try.

Karin: Was this professor Hsu again?
Joanne: It was Alfred Chen, my master’s thesis advisor, and Charles Lin, a professor in geosciences at NCKU. It was Charles introduced me to Tom [Thomas Immel, PI of ICON].

Karin: So your advisor said go ahead and try to get on this mission and you were able to say that you had worked on this other mission that Stephen Mende and Harald Frey had also worked on? That’s a great connection!
Joanne: Yeah, it was fun because the previous mission I was working on—to do with lightning, transient luminous events and thunderstorms—kind of related to what I experienced when I was a kid. And then, during my PhD days, I got interested in the connection from the lower altitude of the atmosphere to the ionosphere, up above 90 kilometers. I am very grateful that I got the chance to come to SSL and work on ICON, the Ionospheric CONnection explorer.

Karin: What are some of the high points and low points of what you work on now? What’s most exciting, or what is difficult?
Joanne: Exciting would be right now with ICON, we are getting data every day, and every time the new information comes in, there’s always a chance for us to find some new science among all these data. Since I am into algorithms and math, what excites me most is to apply the so-called “Big Data” concept to science data.

Karin: What does that mean exactly? Is it machine learning you are talking about, like AI, artificial intelligence?
Joanne: Yes, like machine learning, neural network, they are all part of artificial intelligence.

Karin: So part of the process is automated? Does the AI scan through the data looking for certain… ?
Joanne: Automation and feature identification are always important steps in getting a reliable science result. Traditionally, we have designed tools based on the existing theory or the features that we want to capture. The big difference between Big-Data concept and the traditional way is that we let the data define the rules first. In other words, we train a model to learn rules from actual data, and then use the trained model to capture similar features or to forecast what will happen in the future.

Karin: Cool.

Joanne: Letting machines learn the rules directly from the data sounds like a marvel. The process actually relies heavily on statistics (math) and the optimized flow of passing information from one step to the next. One thing we need to be careful of is to not one hundred percent trust the outcome from machine learning. Physics is always our good old friend that helps us verify whether the rules the machine just learned make sense or not.

Karin: And downsides or frustration in your work?
Joanne: The downside is — I think I get it every day (laughs)—
“Oh why did my code break?”
“Why does my theory not work?”
“Oh no!! The deadline is approaching, I wish I had more than 24 hours a day!!”
…but it is a fun path to me. I know getting those errors is not pleasant at all, but once you figure out the breakthrough, that is the best reward.

Karin: What do you see coming in your field, what kind of things would be the most exciting? Or what are you excited to work on next? What’s a question that intrigues you or people on the ICON?

Joanne: I continue to have passion for the connection between lightning/ thunderstorm systems and the upper atmosphere. Lightning activity (thunderstorms) is one of those natural phenomena that are astonishing to human beings, and it also serves as a kind of battery between the surface of the earth and the ionosphere to keep a global electric circuit running. How does this electric circuit system connect to the electrodynamic system in the ionosphere? That is an interesting question that I would like to study. I’m hoping that with four instruments onboard ICON—ICON measures ionized atmosphere (plasma) and non-ionized (neutral) atmosphere at the same time—we will be able to find out.

Karin: OK, last question—do you have any hobbies or interests outside of work? Especially anything that that people might be surprised that you like to do? I see you have a badminton jacket on… any hobbies or sports or art, etc?
Joanne: As much as I like science, I am also into sports and outdoor activity. When I was a kid, one of my dreams was to play in the Olympics! I was a trained badminton player since age 10. I also got hooked on running when I was an undergrad. I feel that badminton and running are my best friends no matter where I go. I played in badminton clubs in every city I have ever stayed in more than a week. I am a shy person, but badminton helps me to make connections with a new town when I first arrive.

Karin: Good method!

Joanne: I also like to go for a run after work, as you saw us several time on the fire trail (smile). The longer the distance I run, the more relaxed I feel.

Karin: Yes.

Joanne: The Boston Marathon is the Mecca for all runners, I was lucky to be be encouraged to join the race without a bib by a staff member on the start line, so I ran the marathon with my water backpack, it was crazy and amazing! But I am not satisfied, I will keep training myself to reach the Boston Qualifying time (BQ).

Karin: And then it seems (from your Zoom profile picture) that you are fond of cats?
Joanne: Oh yeah, I miss my kitty a lot! Her name is Mumu. My cat has been with me throughout the most difficult PhD days.

Karin: She helped you with your PhD ? 🙂
Joanne: She did!! I think without her I wouldn’t be able to get my degree! She even “typed” my thesis a couple of times. But I had to leave her with my parents after I moved here. I’m still thinking of bringing her here, but we will see…

Karin: And here in the US, you don’t have a cat?
Joanne: No I don’t. Well my heart belongs to my Mumu so I’m not going to get one here. But I look for cats all the time when I am on the street.

black and white cat
Joanne’s cat, Mumu, helped her with her PhD thesis.