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Listen or download interview (mp3, 31 minutes, 30 MB)
When Inez Fung applied to graduate school, she was asked why her grades were “not so stellar.” She answered honestly: because she was bored. Fung was innately interested in numbers, but mathematics didn’t grab her until it connected with something real. She found her calling in an undergraduate applied math course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where chaos theory and the flow of cars or clouds converged.
Bolstered by her passion for the subject and by a profound bond with her graduate advisor, Fung found her way to the field of climate science, where she helped develop the first 3-D models of the atmosphere that incorporated the complexities of the biosphere: the role of oceans, lands, and seasonal variations. Her work has revealed much of what we now know about the earth’s carbon cycle, the sinks and sources of this greenhouse gas and how climate change is reshaping it in unexpected ways.
Fung is a professor of atmospheric science at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment. She is also a contributing author to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third and Fourth Assessment reports. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2001.
Fung describes her childhood on the shores of southern Hong Kong, where she found joy in the beach’s rolling waves and in the elegance of numbers. She recalls casting about for a vocational fit, discarding music and medicine before deciding to try mathematics. After political turmoil prompts her parents to send Fung and her siblings to the U.S., Fung lands at MIT, where she finally finds a home in applied math—a field that fascinates her, she says, because it connects numbers with reality and the natural world. Fung forges a close connection with her graduate school advisor, meteorologist Jule Gregory Charney, who later urges her to move away from her hurricane studies and learn climate modeling so the two could work together. Charney dies before they get their chance, but the transition leads Fung to groundbreaking research on the planet’s carbon cycle. Fung explains how the carbon cycle works, how it fluctuates with the seasons and other natural factors, and how carbon from the burning of fossil fuels is pushing the cycle out of balance.
The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.