Dr. Benjamin Zaitchik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Ben received his undergraduate training in Biology at Harvard University and went on to receive his M.S. in Crop and Soil Sciences from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in Geology and Geophysics from Yale University. Afterward, Ben conducted postdoctoral research as a Research Associate with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Hydrological Sciences Branch and the University of Maryland. He served as an American Association for the Advancement of Science Diplomacy fellow in the U.S. Department of State Office of Global Change before joining the faculty at Johns Hopkins. Ben has received the Meritorious Service and Superior Honor Awards from the U.S. State Department, the Peer Award for outstanding Research Associate from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and has been named a PopTech Science Fellow. Ben is here with us today to tell us all about his journey through life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (02:26)
These days, Ben has been spending most of his free time hanging out with his two year old visiting the aquarium, frequenting the zoo, and solving puzzles together. He also likes music and enjoys playing the piano.
The Scientific Side (03:25)
Ben’s research aims to understand natural systems like the climate system. By gaining an understanding of these systems, he can make predictions and determine how changes in these systems can be applied and how humans will respond to change. This is key for optimizing human and societal responses to problems like extreme climate variability, gradual climate change, and drought.
A Dose of Motivation (06:05)
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ … but ‘That’s funny…'” by Isaac Asimov
“Give me just one data point and an idea.” by Karl Turekian
What Got You Hooked on Science? (12:00)
Despite the artistic inclinations of many of his family members, Ben was driven toward a career in science. His interest began as a love of the natural world during his childhood. Ben spent his time exploring the woods, hiking, and finding summer jobs where he could work outside with plants. An early experience as a freshman in college doing research in the field gave Ben an opportunity to experience the thrill devising and answering scientific questions first-hand.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (20:25)
While doing his Master’s research in Honduras, Ben was working on a project that involved studying landslides, what might cause them, and the vulnerability patterns. For the first few weeks, he spent his time following people around and helping other team members. However, Ben began to realize that he wasn’t getting the data he needed for his project. It was challenging to make the transition into taking full responsibility of a project and striking out on his own to collect his own data, but Ben managed to get everything he needed in time.
A Shining Success! (23:50)
Ben has a great group of students and postdocs in his lab right now. It has been wonderful to work with these talented individuals to start answering some big questions. Projects in the lab have examined why El Niño has the effects it does, investigated why neighboring regions in Africa have different patterns of climate variability, and applied forecasting to hydroeconomics on the Nile River. Coming together as a group to answer these questions has been really exciting for him.
Book Recommendations (28:13)
The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley, Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil by Daniel Hillel, The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart, I and Thou by Martin Buber
Most Treasured Travel (18:40)
Some of Ben’s travel experiences have been memorable but bittersweet. He has traveled to places such as Honduras, Syria, and Ethiopia that have been vulnerable to challenges from climate variability and resource availability. Experiencing the cultures and engaging with the communities has been phenomenal. However, knowing that these countries are facing hardships and tragedy is particularly sad for him because he has been to these places and connected with the people there.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (25:50)
One of Ben’s lab members is also an artist and has been creating paintings related to their research. This person sometimes brings his paintings into lab meetings, and the lab has fun trying to guess what he is trying to convey. They also get to exercise their creativity coming up with outreach ideas and catchy titles for these outreach endeavors.
Advice For Us All (32:25)
Don’t forget the beauty of the system you are studying. Also, be scientifically generous, be happy, and have fun.
Ben looks for new approaches to understand and manage human influences on climate and water resources at local, regional and global scales, and explores improved forecast systems and methods of risk assessment. His work has received funding from NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and has appeared in the Journal of Climate and Water Resources Research, among others. Ben is interested in helping provide new insights in such crucial areas as transboundary water management, climate-informed disease early warning systems, and adaptation strategies in subsistence agricultural communities.