The science around us
For rising sophomore Yuchen Li, ’26, a decision about his summer plans came down to where and how he would carry out research, a passion he had developed before reaching Stanford.
“I knew I wanted to do research this summer,” said Li, a Sustainability and Earth Summer Undergraduate Research (SESUR) student doing research on how the Southern Ocean responds to winds with Assistant Professor Earle Wilson. “I was debating between going off campus to do research at a national lab and ultimately decided to stay here to get to know people in the departments better.”
Li, who was born in China and grew up in Washington, said his interest in science started in elementary school.
“I remember my teacher talking about the geologic history of Washington State, and we learned about how it was glaciated in the past and that's why there's all these U-shaped valleys and landforms,” Li said. “I think that probably played a pretty formative role in my interest in science.”
In middle school, he started participating in science competitions, then entered the science fair in high school, where he presented research about the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation and projected drivers of its change. That experience solidified his interest in Earth sciences, and Yuchen was able to continue studying ocean circulation through the SESUR program this summer. He worked with Wilson and postdoctoral researcher Zach Kaufman in the Department of Earth System Science.
His research addresses a widespread bias in climate modeling of the Southern Ocean: while satellites have observed a gentle cooling of the Southern Ocean surface, state-of-the-art models have instead predicted warming. Sea surface temperatures are especially important for the global climate since they affect the extent to which oceans can uptake heat, Li said. With Wilson’s group, Li investigated the extent to which stronger winds over the Southern Ocean have contributed to changes in the sea surface temperature.
“I think Earth science especially is a deeply fascinating subject because it's very real. You experience the weather every day. We are in the atmosphere,” Li said. “You can study something that's with you every day, but also draw some fascinating insights about the statistics of the weather, like how the climate changes.”