Meet Justin Finkel

November 20, 2018

Justin Finkel

Justin Finkel grew up in Detroit, Michigan. He studied physics and mathematics as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s now pursuing a PhD in Computational and Applied Mathematics. We interviewed him about his experience at the University of Chicago.

What are you studying at UChicago?

My primary application area is climate science. I hope to leverage tools of statistical mechanics and signal processing for data-driven climate modeling. I am especially interested in rare and extreme events such as strong hurricanes and sudden stratospheric warmings, which are difficult to simulate and predict owing to limited model resolution. By enhanced sampling and high-dimensional statistical analysis, we can derive principled predictors of these transitions and better understand their dominant reaction pathways.

Why did you choose UChicago?

The strong culture of multidisciplinary collaboration at UChicago is exactly what I was searching for in a graduate school. As students and researchers, we are encouraged to take classes and develop research partnerships with other departments. Even in an applied mathematics program with its own rigorous set of courses, I have grown and strengthened my relationships with chemistry and Earth science through electives, reading courses, and research. Being a student at UChicago, and especially in the new CAM program, has afforded me the opportunity to interface with many faculty members and visiting speakers. Furthermore, the school has strong support and programming for graduate students, including social events and career support.

What noteworthy academic, research, or teaching activities you have pursued while at the UChicago?

I am interested in data-driven inference of nonlinear dynamical systems, drawing on tools in machine learning, statistical mechanics, and numerical analysis. My current project is analyzing the statistical properties of Sudden Stratospheric Warming, an intermittent phenomenon which has severe impacts on extreme weather in the troposphere. I have participated in several interdisciplinary reading groups, in topics such as machine learning for science, statistical physics, and data assimilation. I am also the coordinator for the fall 2018 CAM student seminar.

What activities do you participate in outside of the classroom?

On the side, I tutor students online in various courses in mathematics and physics. In my spare time, I enjoy running and unicycling by the lakeshore, juggling, and concocting elaborate puns.

What are your plans post-UChicago?

I hope to continue research in an Earth science-related field, either in academia, industry (for example, using weather prediction to improve crop yields), or government (for example, in a Department of Energy laboratory). I am also open to the possibility of teaching high school, as this was the most transformative stage of education for me.

What support have you received at UChicago?

While my first year was funded by the CAM grant, my remaining time here will be supported by the Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship, which was awarded to me beginning in September 2018. This fellowship includes an annual conference and a 12-week practicum at a DOE national laboratory. I expect to do my practicum in the summer of 2019 at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. It was with lots of support and guidance from advisors that I secured this great opportunity, and the proposal process was extremely helpful in defining a research plan (this would be true even if I hadn’t won the fellowship). 

If you were speaking to a prospective student, what would you tell them about UChicago?

This school offers tremendous freedom to expand your horizons academically and socially. “Pigeonholed” is not an applicable term here. Do not be afraid to pull the thread if you find yourself interested in a random topic. You can truly get out what you put in.

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