News Story

May 7, 2020
HUCE Communications

HUCE Faculty Profile: Marianna Linz


By Erin Harleman, Harvard University Center for the Environment

Since her days as an undergraduate, Marianna Linz has been charting her own course at Harvard, both in the lab and the classroom, where in 2019 she became Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering and of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Linz graduated from Harvard in 2011 as the first joint concentrator in Chemistry and Physics and Earth and Planetary Sciences. “I came to Harvard wanting to create the carbon-neutral replacement for Styrofoam. I decided I was going to save the planet by fixing all of our materials,” says Linz. But an introduction to EPS courses piqued Linz’s interest, and she recognized that her passion for saving the world could take a very different form by studying how the planet works. “Understanding individual materials, although very practical, in some ways started to seem less important than figuring out the whole climate system,” explains Linz.

Linz went on to pursue a PhD in Physical Oceanography from the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Joint Program, followed by postdoctoral research at UCLA. During her time at MIT-Woods Hole, Linz became involved with the Cambridge nonprofit Science Club for Girls, an initiative to introduce girls and young women from underrepresented communities to STEM activities. Linz developed curricula on Earth science and physics for girls in kindergarten and first grade. But she realized that something key was missing from her work with children—discussions on climate change. “That didn’t seem right. I spent some time thinking about how I would explain the greenhouse effect and climate change to these young girls. I knew it was something worth teaching at that level,” explains Linz.

As she started to develop a climate change curriculum for young girls, she came across an article in The Guardian about how the fossil fuel industry was providing resources to underserved school districts in Oklahoma extolling the virtues of their products. “I thought, well that’s just awful, but there must be good books out there about climate,” says Linz. So she set out to find those books, and when she found very few, she decided to write her own. Linz’s picture book, Cool For You, contains rhyming couplets that explain the basic science of climate change and how kids can take action. Linz is still involved with Science Club for Girls, donating nearly 200 copies of her book to young children in the program.

Returning to Harvard this year as a faculty member, Linz brought her passion for teaching climate science back to where it all began. In the fall, she taught a lab course on climate and atmospheric physics, where students manipulated mini rotating tanks to observe various phenomena such as hurricanes, wave motion, and how atmospheric circulation between the cold poles and the warm equator influences weather patterns. “I tried not to lecture at all. My students were so creative, and I really enjoyed the hands-on, active learning aspect of this class,” says Linz. Instead of setting up a large and complicated lab, Linz assembled makeshift mini labs using office shelf components, LEGO motors, and kitchen turntables with floral vases on top (the ‘tanks’), enabling students to essentially bring the lab back to their houses, where they could repeat experiments as necessary. In preparation for a potential shift to remote learning in the fall, Linz is pricing out the cost of shipping every student their own at-home kit. “Being able to run a lab class remotely would be super cool, but we have to figure out if we can do that reasonably,” she says.

In the meantime, a few of Linz’s students will be assisting with her group’s research projects this summer. One question Linz hopes to answer is whether or not we will experience more extreme simultaneous heat waves on a global scale. Some studies have suggested a higher likelihood of these events, but the mechanism by which this can be measured hasn’t been proven in the lab. “We are trying to see whether or not the mechanism by which you have these increasing simultaneous heatwaves holds in a very simple climate model,” explains Linz. A related project looks at what factors contribute to the distribution of temperatures. “We are trying to understand extreme events. Not just how often we will have heat waves in the future, but what really sets the full distribution of temperatures that we experience,” explains Linz.

Linz is also looking at how chemicals move around in the stratosphere in an effort to understand the decreasing ozone layer over the mid-latitude region. Because there has been so much variability in the ozone layer over this region, it has proven difficult to pinpoint a trend. “One of my projects looks at how long of a record we actually need to say there’s a trend, and quantifying when we would be able to see a trend like that is important,” says Linz.

Whether engaging kindergarteners or Harvard students, working in a conventional lab or building homemade portable kits, Linz brings a unique perspective to her role as mentor and academic. Self-identifying as ‘neuro-divergent,’ Linz understands that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching or learning. “It’s so important to recognize that people are different, and that our brains work differently. As scientists who are independent researchers, it’s the perfect opportunity to recognize that we can do things differently,” says Linz. In her lab, Linz embraces a “you do you” philosophy toward work style, and she hopes that by talking about what it means to accept our infinite variations in neurocognitive functioning, new models for teaching and learning might emerge.

Research Areas: 

Harvard University
Center for the Environment

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