Cooper Elsworth can trace many of his career decisions back to his long-standing obsession with cycling. From a young age, he was amazed by the mechanics of the bikes that carried him along the roads and trails of rural Pennsylvania, where he grew up.
He was always interested in understanding how things worked. That interest fueled his undergraduate and master’s degrees in engineering, during which he worked on numerical methods to study fluid dynamics. When it came time to pursue a Ph.D., it was the hours he had spent biking, hiking, and kayaking with his family that inspired him to turn to the geosciences.
As Elsworth thought about how to apply his theoretical skills in fluid dynamics to applied science, studying ice sheets seemed a natural transition. “The ice sheets are really just very, very slow moving fluids,” he said. “Even more than that, I was excited about working on something climate related. The response of the ice sheets to climate change is one of the biggest unknowns in our projections of sea level rise, so it seemed like a really impactful area of research to go into.”
Initially, Elsworth felt empowered by basic science research and the opportunity to help answer outstanding questions about the climate system. Like most grad students, he planned to stay in academia. That began to change with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He watched the results come in from Antarctica, where he was studying how subglacial meltwater influences the large-scale ice flow, and afterward he grew increasingly troubled by the environmental deregulation and climate inaction of the Trump administration.
“We’ve had climate science saying this is something we need to act on for decades,” Elsworth said. He became increasingly interested in how to take that basic climate science and turn it into climate action. Now a Ph.D. candidate in geophysics at Stanford University, he turned his professional interest to the private sector.
Elsworth became an applied scientist and, more recently, a program manager at the sustainability start-up Descartes Labs, where he leads the production of sustainability tools that use remote sensing to track things like carbon emissions from agricultural and consumer goods supply chains.
Now he tells students stressing about life decisions after grad school that academia, private industry, and the public sector aren’t as siloed as they seem, nor should they be: “It’s really valuable, especially in sustainability research, to break down those silos and to realize that we’re all moving toward a common goal and we’re trying to solve a common problem.”
—Kate Wheeling, Science Writer
Wheeling, K. (2021), Cooper Elsworth: Cycling‑inspired science, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO162232. Published on 24 August 2021.
Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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