Inside the CUNY ASRC with Zachary Tessler, PhD

Zachary Tessler, PhD

  • Research Assistant Professor and manager of the Coastal Science Synthesis Facility in the CUNY ASRC Environmental Sciences Initiative
  • A physical oceanographer by training, his work focuses on environmental change in river deltas and implications for natural and human systems in the coastal zone
  • Studies the risk faced by cities and communities on river deltas due to global and local environmental change, and how it changes at a range of spatial scales. This research depends on novel use and integration of global and regional datasets.

What is the inspiration or motivation behind your interest in environmental change in river deltas?

My PhD work was focused on the ocean during which I got very interested in knowing what is going on with people on the shore. I was specifically looking at how wind, storms, and floods impact the people who live close to the ocean and how those weather phenomena impact the coastal zone. This was the motivation to take the oceanographic work I had done and incorporate a social component, namely looking at how humans are part of this larger system.

What was your first breakthrough moment or discovery in your research?

The first time when I felt I had discovered something new was during my PhD work—I didn’t have enough time on the ship to analyze the data I had collected, so when I returned, I had this huge pile of data and graphs. Most of the graphs seemed uninteresting and similar, but one area looked really different. In one particular spot deep in the sea floor, the water was travelling unusually fast in one direction. Attempting to solve this question ended up becoming what drove my research for my PhD. It turned out that the water was going downhill because there was this deep basin underwater where all the water was going—almost as if a bath tub is being filled. The temperature and salinity of this water was different from the rest of the ocean water.

When did you find out you wanted to be an oceanographer and a researcher/scientist?

During my undergraduate study, I was very interested in environmental science and in my junior year, I realized I was much more interested in my geology coursework. I ended up switching my major my senior year to geology and during one of my courses, I learnt about paleoceanography (the study of the history of the oceans in the geologic past with regard to circulation, chemistry, biology, geology and patterns of sedimentation and biological productivity). The course was fascinating because all the sciences came together to study about the ocean’s past. Ultimately when I applied for graduate schools, I was interested in oceanography because of its interdisciplinary nature and the fact it is geographically disperse.

What does “interdisciplinary research” mean to you?

 One thing that has been very beneficial in my research is the collaborative work I have done with people both within CUNY and at other institutions. For an interdisciplinary project, the non-scientists approach a problem in a completely different way than I or any other scientist would. Working with them from defining a project all the way to publishing results at the end can be very eye-opening. For instance, while I look at any environmental change from the perspective of a physical scientist, there is also a social side to these problems that needs to be explored. Thanks to these collaborations, I have begun to look at the environmental problems from a social perspective and explore how they impact people and how the population affects the environment.

Why did you choose to work at the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center?

 The interdisciplinary aspect is very valuable at the CUNY ASRC, especially within the environmental sciences. If a researcher is studying the environment, it is very important to talk to social scientists, engineers, and other physical scientists. Studying a particular system from different directions is interdisciplinary and that expansive view of interdisciplinary work is what ASRC is about.

‘Inside the CUNY ASRC’ is a regular monthly series featuring some of the many cutting-edge scientists performing research at the Advanced Science Research Center. Compiled from interviews conducted by the ASRC Explainers, Lehman College and Macaulay Honors College junior Sana Batool and Queens College sophomore Colleen Chasteau, the series showcases researchers from a range of experience levels—from undergraduates to faculty members.