Atmospheric Scientist Da Yang Named a 2019 Packard Fellow

Recipient Studies How Rainstorms Shape Earth’s Climate

Scientist Da Yang at whiteboard
UC Davis Professor Da Yang is a 2019 Packard fellow. (UC Davis)

Da Yang, a UC Davis atmospheric scientist who studies the physics of intense rainstorms like hurricanes and their relationship to the Earth’s climate, has been awarded a 2019 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Yang is among 22 early-career scientists and engineers nationwide to receive the prestigious award this year. Each will be awarded $875,000 over five years to pursue their research. He is the first recipient of the Packard Fellowship in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis.

“It is a great honor to have our work recognized and supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation,” said Yang, an assistant professor in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources and a joint faculty scientist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “The Packard Fellowship will provide us enormous freedom to pursue a fresh, new angle to tackle extreme weather and climate change problems.”

How rainstorms shape Earth’s climate

Yang and colleagues use a combination of satellite observations, computer models and old-fashioned pencil-and-paper theories to study the Earth’s weather and climate. Their research focus is on understanding the physics of rainstorms to address what sets their temporal and spatial scales, and how the collective effect of individual rainstorms shapes the Earth’s climate.

Conventional theories on the physics of rainstorms and climate change have overlooked what Yang calls “the incredible lightness of water vapor.” Simply put, water vapor in the atmosphere is lighter than dry air. As the Earth warms, this vapor buoyancy effect will affect the size and behavior of rainstorms, and the overall energy balance of the Earth’s atmosphere in a profound way.

“We believe Professor Yang’s research will provide a more accurate estimate of the Earth’s future climate, which will provide improved predictions of how rainstorms will change,” said William Horwath, chair of the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources and the Boswell Endowed Chair in Soil Science. “We are thrilled that our colleague has been recognized with this fellowship that will empower his research to study previously unexplored areas of climate science.”

Blue-sky thinking

The Packard Fellowships in Science and Engineering are among the nation’s largest nongovernmental fellowships, designed to allow maximum flexibility in how the funding is used. Since 1988, the program has supported the “blue-sky thinking” of more than 600 scientists and engineers from 54 national universities.

Fellows have gone on to receive a range of accolades, including Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics, the Fields Medal, the Alan T. Waterman Award, MacArthur Fellowships and elections to the National Academies. The fellows also gather at annual meetings to discuss their research, where conversations have led to unexpected collaborations across disciplines.

“This new class of Fellows is about to embark on a journey to pursue their curiosity down unknown paths in ways that could lead to big discoveries,” said Frances Arnold, a 1989 Packard fellow who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry and chairs the Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel. “I can’t wait to see what direction the work of these brilliant scientists and engineers will take. Their efforts will add to this beautiful web of science that connects us all to a better understanding of the world around us.”

The fellowships program was inspired by David Packard's commitment to strengthen university-based science and engineering programs in the United States. He recognized that the success of the Hewlett-Packard Company, which he co-founded, was derived in large measure from research and development in university laboratories. This year’s fellowships are also supported in part by the Ross M. Brown Family Foundation.

In addition to Yang, other UC Davis Packard fellows include Margaret Crofoot, associate professor of anthropology, 2016; Santiago Ramirez, associate professor of evolution and ecology, 2014; Matthew Franklin, professor of computer science, 2001; Matthew Augustine, professor of chemistry, 1998; Nicholas Abbott, former chemical engineering and materials science faculty now at Cornell University, 1994; Brian Kolner, professor of electrical and computer engineering, 1991 (received while he was at UCLA); and Anne Hofmeister, former geology faculty now at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, 1989.

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