Geek of the Week: Vulcan’s W. Andre Perkins uses machine learning to help predict climate change – GeekWire

  • Lauren
  • November 29, 2020
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W. Andre Perkins. (Photo courtesy of W. Andre Perkins)
Growing up outside a town in Wisconsin, out in the woods with dial-up internet and his parents, sister, cats, horses, and chickens, W. Andre Perkins always had an interest in weather. Sometime along the way, it evolved into a desire to pursue a career in climate science.
“It built up over the years through many interactions,” Perkins said. “The data and modeling aspect appealed to my interests, but year by year I was also faced with growing concern about our future projections and relative inaction. That last aspect really played into my feelings that we’re going to need plenty of folks who are well-versed in climate moving forward.”
Perkins, GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week, is now among the well versed, as a machine learning scientist for Vulcan Inc.’s Climate Modeling team. He started the job with the late Paul Allen’s company just over a year ago, after receiving his PhD in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. Prior to that he studied at the University of Wisconsin majoring in Atmospheric & Oceanic Science and Computer Sciences.
 This problem is all hands on deck — one that can only be addressed through collective action.
During his time in graduate school, Perkins was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship recipient for his work on adapting some of the best weather simulation techniques to make better estimates of the climate over the last 2,000 years. At Vulcan he is developing cutting-edge solutions using machine learning to decrease uncertainty about future climate.
“With better information on how patterns of precipitation will change over time, we can empower governments at all levels to make plans to protect their constituents,” Perkins said, adding that the team and project at Vulcan was a huge draw.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to focus on a climate-related problem with a crew of wildly intelligent people,” he said.
Perkins said optimism is a bit hard to come by these days when it comes to where we’re headed as a species on a warming planet. A lot still depends on humans and how well we can get emissions under control.
“Short-to-medium term, we’ll really start to experience some of the pain we’ve baked in for ourselves,” Perkins said. “This is exactly the reason why we need to build up our capacity for centering and protecting people, especially our most vulnerable, from the impacts of the changing climate.”
But he’s hopeful in the long term that tools and tech can help people overcome the seemingly insurmountable problems — but it will take radical shifts in our priorities as a society.
“This problem is all hands on deck — one that can only be addressed through collective action. I am hopeful because public sentiment seems to be turning in favor of addressing climate. I am hopeful from all the young and brilliant leaders that are starting to work their way into public discourse. In the meantime, I’ll continue the work alongside many others in hope of a positive ending to the climate problem.”
When he’s not dealing with such major issues, Perkins likes to geek out watching anime or whatever’s hot in popular TV, talking about politics, or occasionally reading sci-fi/fantasy novels. He does his fair share of gaming and has been building PCs since high school (thanks in part to scavenging and eBay early on).
“Pre-quarantine, I enjoyed circuit training, weightlifting, and getting some good dance sessions in at trance/progressive shows in downtown Seattle,” he said. “But lately, I’ve been learning a lot about home networking for entertainment and security, dog training, and building a good relationship with our new 3-year-old pooch, Tachikoma.”
Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, W. Andre Perkins:
What do you do, and why do you do it? I figure out how to use machine learning (ML) to improve our climate simulations. We are 30 years behind on the biggest issue of our generation and how we focus our finite resources toward this problem will matter. This is my way of contributing. If we can develop methods to decrease our uncertainty about how to plan for people and the environment by even minute amounts it could have a huge impact.
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Climate scientists bring together disciplines from many fields from math, physics, biology, chemistry, etc. There are many of us, approaching this problem from many different angles. We’re all human. We’re doing our best to provide relevant and timely information to help avert absolute disaster.
Where do you find your inspiration? In my many friends and colleagues who pour their energy into creating a better future for everyone. Some are great activists/organizers, mentors/teachers, public science communicators, or brilliant scientists. They are willing to put themselves forward in one way or another. They’ve cemented for me the notion that we all have some role to play, big or small, whether out in front or behind the scenes, towards handling climate change.
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? It’s a bit of a cheat since there’s a lot of associated pieces to this technology, but definitely my desktop PC. It’s a one-stop-shop for work/entertainment/learning/connecting with friends, which has been especially important while we’ve been incentivized to stay at home.
(Photo courtesy of W. Andre Perkins)
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? It’s nothing too fancy — a desk, a computer, and a comfy chair for long sitting sessions. We actually do most of our work using cloud services to handle the volume of data and computational requirements for ML and climate simulation, which makes working from varied locations (pre-quarantine) quite easy. My office is maybe a bit empty for most tastes, but I’m slowly getting some art on my white walls. There are usually some lingering gadgets or notes from the weekend’s projects.I’m not too picky with my workspace, but having a separate room that I can have options of quiet for thinking or some music or podcasts for development work helps with the daily flow. Before moving, we turned our 1BR apartment’s living room into a shared office last spring when everything shifted, so I’m very grateful to have the space right now.
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) It’s an ongoing personal project to figure this out, and I’m still trying to break some of my bad habits from graduate school. What’s worked for me so far is setting plans (like an exercise session or outdoor walk), which is great for providing a strict cutoff. If I’m going to work on something outside work hours, I only do it if it interests me personally. A lot of interesting engineering problems are like puzzles so I don’t fret too much if I decide to think or work on it after hours.
Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows on my home computer for my entire life (near necessity for most games) and I usually connect to Linux workstations or VMs for research/development work. I’ve just recently been exploring the Windows Subsystem for Linux since I can utilize my GPU for ML tasks from within.
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Commander Erwin in “Attack on Titan.”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Practically, a transporter is probably the correct choice, but I don’t think I could pass up a time machine, dangers aside. It’s selfish, but I’d really like to see what happens in the future. Can we manage climate change? Do we make it off planet? Interstellar? Maybe we unlock some greater mysteries of the universe. Could be exciting.
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … try to use that money to convince many others with money to invest much more in all aspects of the climate problem. There’s no silver bullet, we’ll need a whole battery of solutions.
I once waited in line for … A Wii on release day. I spent 24-hours waiting in a Walmart layaway … but it was high school so what else was I going to do?
Your role models: I have a lot of people I admire for specific qualities. Climate communicators like Dr. Marshall Shepard, Dr. Leah Stokes, and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who clarify, educate, and strongly advocate for positive change. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her ability to engage and how she’s radically realigned the assumptions on what makes a politician and what it takes to affect change. As full role models, I’d have to pick my parents. They’ve displayed nothing but encouragement, generosity, love, and patience while raising me and my younger sister who has a disability. They seeded my curiosity, critical thinking, and self-expression, and I hope I can do as much for others as they’ve done for me.
Greatest game in history It wasn’t perfect, but “Diablo II: Lord of Destruction” was pretty formative for me. Online play, fantastic loot, and an incredibly dark and interesting world.
Best gadget ever: Raspberry Pi! So many potential uses!
First computer: A big beige Windows 95 box. I still remember the “Jurassic Park” screensaver my parents installed and not understanding anything that was going on in the included game, “Magic Carpet.”
Current phone: Pixel 2.
Favorite app: Twitter. It took a while to curate, but it has been an invaluable source of up-to-date info on current events at the local and national scale, science, and politics.
Favorite cause: Increasing and amplifying BIPOC representation in STEM, BLM.
Most important technology of 2020: I know it’s already been said, but I can’t argue, it’s video conferencing.
Most important technology of 2022: I hope it’s a major breakthrough in energy storage tech that helps with our renewables revolution and rapid decarbonization.
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Get involved in something that makes you feel good and leaves something about the world better, even if only a bit. It can be hard to step outside of the comfort zone, but if the last few years have shown anything, it’s that we need stand up for one another because we need each other. Start small and build out from there. How else are we going to get to one of the rad high-tech post-scarcity worldlines?
Twitter: @frodre
LinkedIn: W. Andre Perkins