Earth Institute Profiles

Debra Tillinger

Ph.D. Program in Earth and Environmental Science

Debra Tillinger

Debra Tillinger is a fifth year doctoral candidate in the Ph.D. program in earth and environmental science, which aims to train broadly educated earth scientists for careers in academia, research, government and industry. A specialization in physical oceanography has allowed her to work among experts at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in a field that focuses on high- and low-latitude ocean dynamics and the study of the ocean's role in the global climate system.

“We have some of the world’s top scientists at Lamont-Doherty,” says Tillinger. “That means that when I travel to a major conference, my work is taken seriously and I am afforded some of the respect given to my advisor.”

A number of Lamont-Doherty faculty within this specialization have active research programs in the Arctic and North Atlantic regions, including studies of such phenomena as the North Atlantic Oscillation, ocean-atmosphere interaction, and the dynamics of sea ice. Other faculty members specialize in low-latitude problems, including tropical Atlantic variability and the forecasting of the El Nino climate oscillation.

Tillinger studies the dynamics of tropical climate and oceanography. Her work is focused on the Indonesian Throughflow, a current that transports water from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans and is closely linked with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the Indian monsoon system. As part of her research, she works on ships, mainly around the Philippines, measuring the deep currents there.

Based on her research, Tillinger gave an oral presentation at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting entitled “Indonesian Throughflow Timeseries Based on the Profile of Pacific-Indian Pressure Differences: A 50-Year Record of ITF Variability.” Based on that presentation, she was invited to give a related talk and provide a monograph for an upcoming conference in London.

Tillinger’s faculty advisor, Professor Arnold Gordon, describes her work: “Besides always being upbeat and enthusiastic about her research, Debra excels in work at sea. Oceanographic expeditions on research vessels often are trying undertakings, as the intended plan is rarely followed. Long hours using instruments that don't quite work right can be expected. I can count on Debra to meet these challenges and do her part in ensuring collection of quality information about the ocean.”

Through the Earth Institute, Tillinger has participated in the Learning through Ecology and Environmental Field Studies (LEEFS) program, which creates partnerships between Columbia graduate students and science teachers in New York City public schools. Columbia graduate students receive National Science Foundation GK-12 fellowships that include stipends and tuition assistance. In return, they work in Columbia’s partnering schools, supplementing science education for grades 6 to 12.

At the Dual Language Middle School, a partner school of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), Debra participates in a full day of classes followed by science club on a weekly basis. She has helped sixth, seventh and eighth grade science club members in labs on ocean circulation, global warming and basic physics. She says of her experience, “My kids have taught me a lot about how to communicate science and how to make my work relevant to their lives.”

Sara Scovronick, associate director of CERC, says of the LEEFS program, “Graduate students participating in LEEFS learn quickly what science looks like to non-scientists.  Starting with their initial experience in the classroom, they develop deep connections with students and teachers, communicating firsthand their research and, more importantly, their passion for science.”

While in the Philippines on a research trip, Tillinger maintained a blog for her students from the LEEFS program entitled “Ms. T at Sea.” “Some of the posts were directed as specific classes based on what they were currently learning,” she says.  “Others were more broadly based and were accessible to all classes.”

“The teachers posted their students’ questions and I was able to reply in a Q&A format,” says Tillinger. “Based on the thank you notes that I received from the students, the blog in general left a strong impression on them and several declared their love for science.” 

While Tillinger is still undecided on her future career path, she has enjoyed integrating science into K-12 education and hopes to remain connected to that experience.