PAOC Spotlights

The 2016 PAOC Retreat: Ocean Edge in Brewster, MA

Thu October 20th, 2016
Lauren Hinkel

This year’s PAOC retreat to Ocean Edge’s seaside resort in Brewster, MA gave attendees a chance to socialize and relax before the semester’s events began to pick up. 

Scheduled over the weekend of September 30th – October 2nd, 2016, faculty, graduate students, post-docs and staff of MIT’s Program in Atmospheres, Oceans, and Climate (PAOC) traditionally begin each year with a retreat generously supported by the Houghton Fund.

Despite the inclement weather, PAOC members amused themselves with plenty of stimulating activities.  Some favorites that PAOC enjoyed, in addition to communal meals, were thought-provoking scientific discussions, a star-studded variety show and for those brave enough to venture outside, a dip in Cape Cod’s bay or a hike around the resort.

After settling in Friday evening, attendees reconvened early Saturday morning for a series of talks. Traditionally during the retreat, PAOC members focus discussions and lectures around a particular theme; this year's was climate, climate action and PAOC’s role in the conversation as experts in the field. Invited speakers, Larry Susskind of MIT’s Environmental Policy and Planning Group, Commissioner of the Environment Department for the City of Boston Carl Spector, and Programme Director Payal Parekh, along with PAOC faculty helped to guide the discussion.

Susskind lead off with a discussion about how game theory can be used to help communities understand and create climate policies that benefit all affected. His work involves approaching groups that need help managing conflicting interests when it comes to climate policy and making the concepts and hurtles understandable and relatable using role-playing simulations. Reframing the conversation is one such tactic that he uses, like translating climate change risks into public health risks.

The endgame, he said, was not to create new policy, but to see the broader picture. “I’m not just interested in helping communities avoid the worst case scenario,” he said, but rather, he aims to enhance scientific literacy and give a sense of optimism, so that they can deal with these issues and be able to see problems from perspectives of others in the community. Susskind also expressed the need for scientists to be on the front lines of the climate conversation and help prepare games such as these.

Next up was Carl Spector, who’s involved with climate planning for the city of Boston. He laid out initiatives and strategies that included vulnerability assessments, transportation considerations, adaptation for economic development, green and flood-resistant infrastructure and coastal protections, to name a few. He sees his task as a cycle of investment, which is informed by solid climate science and advising.

Last, Payal Parekh opened with her role as a scientist, as well as an engaged citizen at She pointed to the alleged Exxon cover up of fossil fuel induced climate effects, the global divestment campaign, and the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines as examples of how good climate science can illuminate pieces of the climate picture, providing citizens with information on which to act. However, movements and resulting policies, she said, wouldn't be possible without research and communication from scientists. She closed with a call to action, using research to justify involvement, “You know the implications of your work and the credibility of it."

MIT atmospheric scientists Susan Solomon and Ron Prinn joined the speakers for a round-table discussion, pulling the three talks together and focusing on PAOC’s place in this picture. The viewpoints shared regarding this had a wide range, but all found that a solid foundation of climate research was necessary to inform any/all action and policy.

Following the lively debate, PAOC-ers dispersed for a bit before regrouping for dinner and the talent show. The evening’s MC’s, grad students Charles Gertler and Martin Wolf, had big shoes to fill, as the previous year’s host Yavor Kostov had graduated, but they proved that they were more than up to the task—quick with a quip or anecdote about the upcoming presenters.  Poems and songs, particularly about research, were popular with the crowd. The first years selected “It’s a grad school life”, while the 5th years consulted the grad school handbook, hoping to glean wisdom on how to write a successful thesis. The advice read like a McSweeney’s article on snake taming. The Follows group surveyed PAOC for the worst/harshest research paper comments they’ve received from a reviewer and read them like a critic would critique a bad “fine wine”. “Unpalatable” would be considered high praise. And the postdocs expressed their research through interpretive dance.

The retreat wrapped up Sunday morning with Research Roundup and State of PAOC. Each of the faculty, students, and postdocs gave a 1-minute summary of their past and current projects, and chair Raffaele Ferrari summed up the events of last year in PAOC and where the department is planning on moving.

Special thanks to the 2016 PAOC Retreat Committee for organizing this fun-filled event that was enjoyed by all! We look forward to next year.

See photos from this and previous retreats here.