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Taking math by storm: Talea Mayo models how climate change may affect our coasts

"I use a computer to solve math problems surrounding the way that fluid moves during storms," says Emory mathematician Talea Mayo. "I don't study the atmosphere. I study the response of the ocean to the atmosphere."

Talea Mayo joined the Emory faculty in May as assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics. A computational mathematician, she specializes in developing numerical hydrodynamic models to help predict coastal hazards.  

By creating models for storm surge caused by hurricanes, for instance, she is able to investigate the potential impacts of climate change on coastal flood risks. The resulting data may help policymakers and others develop better plans for the safety and resilience of coastal communities. 

Among Mayo’s accolades are an Early-Career Research Fellowship from the National Academies of Sciences Gulf Research Program and the Early Career Faculty Innovator Award from the National Center for Atmospheric Research. 

In the following Q&A, Mayo talks about some of the environmental forces that helped shape her as a scientist and as an educator, and how she became what she describes as “a fierce advocate of accessible, inclusive science and education of all people.” 

You grew up in Littleton, Colorado. What were some of your early math and computer science influences? 

My mom was in software development and we always had a computer around. I don’t ever remember not having one nearby. Before I even started school, she bought me this really simple kid’s learning tool that was like a computer, with a keyboard and a screen. By the time I was in first grade, she was teaching me multiplication and I would practice on my “computer.” 

I liked school and most of the subjects. I especially liked that math and science subjects were objective. Your answer to a problem is either right or wrong. But I really thought I wanted to be a lawyer. 

How did you decide to attend Grambling State University in Louisiana? 

I wanted to go away somewhere different than Colorado. I applied to a few schools randomly but I got a scholarship to Grambling and so I went there. I loved being in the South. It was so green while Colorado is so dry. Also, Colorado’s population is about 4 percent Black. My experience with Black people was mainly limited to church and family. Grambling is an Historically Black College and University and probably 96 percent Black. It was nice to meet Black people from all over the country and from all different socio-economic backgrounds. I played the flute and piccolo and I joined Grambling’s famous marching band. The band is really tight knit and that made it easy for me to build community there. I really value that. 

I also valued how the professors interacted with students. I was a criminal justice major, but I took a high-level calculus class because math was important to me. The professor eventually called me into his office and said, “You should change your major to math.” I thought about it and I realized that he was right, so I did. 

What prompted your interest in modeling the coastal effects of hurricanes? 

I was a sophomore in 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. The university is in northern Louisiana and we didn’t deal with the storm surges, but I remember the rain. And a lot of students were from places along the Gulf Coast. That allowed me to see the personal impacts of hurricanes. One of the band members was from New Orleans and his sister was killed in a shelter. I realized that it was people who looked like me on the news, sitting on roofs, and seemingly not being taken care of. Seeing that societal impact, particularly for my community, sparked my interest in trying to do something about it. 

The following summer I got an internship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. I worked on a project to try to understand the relationship between the intensity of storms and atmospheric water vapor. I realized how much I loved research and doing something beyond analytical math that had a practical application. 

You went on to become the first African-American PhD student at what is now known as the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at the University of Texas. What was that experience like? 

The transition was very difficult. Initially, I felt isolated within the institute as the only Black person. You may not even be conscious of it, but if there is no one that looks like you who is studying or teaching in a program, it’s like a silent message. I had to get up to speed in computational math, there was this big learning curve, and I also was dealing with culture shock. I couldn’t relate to people on a personal level and I was intimidated, thinking everyone else was so far ahead of me. It took me a while to get myself together and adjust. 

UT Austin is mid-way between Dallas and Houston and near Louisiana, so it was relatively easy for me to connect with people that I knew, which was healthy for me. And once I got into my research things got much better. I loved working with mathematical models and computer coding. I had a really great advisor. The day I defended my dissertation went as smoothly as it could have gone. The timing, the way I answered questions, the way the sun looked when I walked out of the building. That was a perfect day. 

The net was positive. My initial struggles in graduate school make me a better mentor now. 

How do you sum up your research? 

I use a computer to solve math problems surrounding the way that fluid flows during storms. I work with a model that doesn’t have to depend on historical data from storms in coastal communities. I can change a variable in the model and determine how that may affect a storm’s impact. One of the scenarios that I look at a lot is variables due to climate change. 

I don’t study the atmosphere. I study the response of the ocean to the atmosphere. Many people get focused on the category of a hurricane, which tells you the wind strength. But there is also the hazard from water, via storm surge and inland flooding. The water hazards also pose a great threat to the built environment. And human deaths from hurricanes are usually related to water. 

What improvements would you like to see in national hurricane research?  

The hazards are multi-dimensional so we should not study the problems underlying them in isolation. Katrina was catastrophic not just became of the storm but because New Orleans is below sea level, it’s densely populated, and there was a failure of infrastructure. And there are bigger questions than those surrounding physical infrastructure. How do we develop the social infrastructure needed so that low-income people can evacuate in an emergency? How do we foster resilience? 

We need more science in politics if we want to protect coastlines. We need truly inter-disciplinary teams tackling the problems funded over 20-year timescales, so we don’t just do things halfway. As a nation, we’re so reactionary. But only one dollar in prevention equals six dollars spent on a reaction. 

Why did you decide to come to Emory? 

The faculty here really care about teaching and so do I. The students are well-supported, especially in the Department of Mathematics. And I feel valued as a truly inter-disciplinary researcher. I don’t belong in a box. Emory offers a lot of opportunity to grow as my interests evolve. I can collaborate with faculty from the Department of Environmental Sciences, the Department of Computer Science, the Rollins School of Public Health and elsewhere across campus. 

What do you hope will be your academic legacy? 

I want to make an impact scientifically. I want to write good papers and to advance knowledge. And, at the end of the day, I hope that people will say, “She was kind. She treated people well while she achieved those things.”

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