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Dr. Alex Crawford

21 Questions with New UM Research Faculty Dr. Alex Crawford

Meet a new researcher and faculty member at the Centre for Earth Observation Science

October 23, 2020 — 

Meet Dr. Alex Crawford, a new researcher and faculty member at the Centre for Earth Observation Science (CEOS) at University of Manitoba. Dr. Crawford studies how the complex interactions of various components of the Arctic climate system are changing in response to continued warming. Fun fact: he developed a cyclone detection and tracking algorithm that applies to our understanding of Arctic storms and how they interact with the land, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere. Dr. Crawford works with a combination of atmospheric, oceanic and climate models, as well as remote sensing products in predicting seasonal ice events.

1. What is your full name and your position?

My professional name is Alex Crawford. And my position is a research associate at CEOS.

2. What attracted you to the University of Manitoba?

The second part of that last question is my legal name is Alexander Crawford-Alley, and that -Alley there, that’s my wife, Karen Alley, who is starting a tenure track position here as an assistant professor right now. So that’s part of the reason why I’m here. Um, other reasons include, I’m an Arctic scientist. And that means that I’m in a great place for having collaboration with my research. I mostly focus on the atmosphere. And I know that CEOS has been hiring a few people lately that are kind of in that same mold, especially under Julienne Stroeve‘s group. And I’d worked with Julienne before when we both were in Colorado. So there were several different good reasons to be coming in. People that I already know. Good work environment for what I do. And my wife got a position here.

3. What would be your superpower?

My superpower would definitely have to be Wolverine style. I really like the idea of being able to be reckless, especially if you’re a superhero, you’re going to get yourself into tight spots a lot. So being confident that even if you get injured now you’re going to be okay later. That’s pretty cool.

4. What’s your favourite place in the world?

Favourite place the world, um, probably Rocky Mountain National Park. I went to grad school with my now wife at University of Colorado Boulder, which is like an hour away from there. We’ve been there dozens of times, done a lot of good hiking, we got engaged there. So it has some sentimental value too.

5. Who do you follow on social media?

I follow my family, some of my friends. I don’t tend to follow celebrities or, you know, famous people or anything like that. I know a lot of people do. So, I really just use it as a way to stay in touch a little better.

6. What would people be surprised to learn about you?

Okay, um, I think that one thing they might be surprised by is that I put on a good act of being outgoing and confident. Apparently, that’s what I had people telling me, but I am fairly awkward in social situations, or at least I feel awkward. I’m very, like, shy to meet new people and to call people on the phone. So, that one might be a little bit surprising.

7. What is your main research focus?

Right, main research focus, I’m primarily trained as an atmospheric scientist. But I am a little more broadly, an Arctic system scientist, or Arctic climate system scientist would be a way of framing it. And by that I mean, some of my bread and butter stuff is working with synoptic scale storms, so big storm systems that you get in the mid-latitudes and the Arctic. And then it becomes climate system, because I work a lot with how those storm systems interact with the snow cover, the sea ice cover, even the ocean and a little bit of biology actually, most recently, so I definitely try to work on the interaction level, how do these different systems relate to each other? And how does change in one of them cascade eventually into change in another? I think that sort of stuff is fascinating. And so I can’t stay cooped up in the air all the time.

8. Is there a story behind what attracted you to your research area?

When I was a kid, I definitely watched the Weather Channel a lot back before, you know, it became like TV shows. It was just weather all the time. So I definitely have always had a thing for weather and I guess that translates to atmospheric science fairly well. But really going into college, I did not see myself as a scientist, I didn’t really think that that was a career path that you could do. So it really took one of my professors asking me if I wanted to do some research with her because she had an opening unexpectedly and I was in her class at the time, and I was doing well. And so she just kind of off-hand asked about it. I was like, Yeah, why not? That sounds like it might be interesting. I didn’t really think very much of it. But that really got me into it. And she encouraged me a lot in doing, like, extra coursework that was related to scientific research and geology in particular. And I think that that just kind of eventually became, Yeah, okay, this is fun. This is cool. This is engaging and intellectually stimulating. And I feel like in a climate science realm, I’m not just a scientist asking basic questions. It’s something that everyday people can recognize has some value.

9. What is the most difficult thing you’ve ever done?

Most difficult thing I’ve ever done? Um, I think there’s a few ways you can take this. One is kind of from an emotional or mental standpoint, I think it’s pretty hard to figure out what really fits the best in those realms, but I have a pretty clear answer if you’re asking me about like physical achievements. And that is that when I was a junior in high school, I was on a cross country team. And I managed to do about two kilometers into a five kilometer race, get tripped by the guy behind me. And then he also managed to then step on my back on top of rock. And if you’ve ever run cross country, like, seriously, you may have seen those metal cleats that you wear. Very sharp spikes. And the pressure from the spike pressing down on my back actually popped my lung. And I got up and I didn’t realize I had popped a lung there. It’s not like there was any bleeding externally, or anything. And so I got up and I was just ticked off, basically. And so I ran as hard as I’ve ever run in my life. I ended up finishing really well in that race. I beat the guy who accident– he wasn’t on purpose, accidentally tripped me. That was the only race my team won that year too. And then after that, apparently I had to go to the hospital because I had a collapsed lung. So I think that was very difficult to do, to run with one lung going down. But it’s a good, like, fun sort of story. And it got my team win. So there you go.

10. What is one experience that changed your life?

Oh, gosh, um, yeah, I don’t know, there’s a few. I mean, Oh, God, why did my head go to that one? Well, it’s the first thing I thought of, so I’ll say it. Um, my parents got divorced when I was in middle school, that was a huge impact on my life. I think before that I had– that’s kind of where I made the transition from being a kid to starting to become an adult. I’m not saying it made me an adult, but I started to become that. It was fundamental, in just kind of changing how I look at the world as being something that is simple with right and wrong answers to something that’s complex, with nuance that you have to start looking at things from different perspectives. And, you know, just the simple idea of being brought up, being taught in religion that, you know, divorce is bad, it’s a sin, it’s a bad thing. And so how can two good people do it, and kind of shape up your life, that’s a good way of really messing with your morals and your philosophy. So I mean, without a doubt, that’s a fundamental moment in my life, on how things change. And then, of course, a week later, is when the planes flew into the World Trade Center. So, in terms of like, world shattering paradigm shift in your mind, that would be a month that would be a really big one in my life.

11. What is your greatest indulgence?

Baseball is one of them, has become much more interesting because my team, the Rays, have made it to the World Series. Now, they are totally over-matched against the Dodgers. So if they win, it’ll be with some luck. But I am a big baseball fan. I’m really into statistics. And that’s one of the main reasons why I follow it. I do fantasy baseball — really into that, more so than like fantasy football, or hockey or basketball. So that’s definitely something that is often on podcasts when I’m running, and is often on the TV in the evenings when I’m like grading or something.

12. What is your favorite movie or book?

Growing up, and I still think this might qualify, Lord of the Rings was definitely my favorite book. And when the movies came out, it was a great time for the movies to come out in terms of like, where I was in life, because that was around like middle school, high school. So those are great. Love them. Yeah.

13. How do you like to relax?

Well, one of it is having baseball on, well right now actually that’s more stressful. When your team’s never won the World Series before you start to hope for a little bit too much sometimes. So to relax, often I do run. Exercises is helpful, I think, especially right now where it’s hard to get outside, like just outside in general, to do errands or go socialize, or go to work for that matter. Running is still something I can do outside solo. That’s pretty safe, COVID-wise. So that’s definitely one of them right now. I definitely do like listening to podcasts about history, a lot of history podcasts. So that happens. And yeah, I think those right now are the two biggest things that I’m doing in terms of relaxation.

14. What are you reading or watching right now?

So, we just finished watching a TV show called The Good Place, which is a comedy, but it is like surprisingly probing in terms of philosophy. So, that was a clever show. Really enjoyed that one. And actually, so right now, since that finished, it’s the Great British Baking Show, because the new season now available. And that’s what’s going on.

15. What is your greatest fear?

Okay, so the easy answer to this is spiders. That’s the non-controversial, like, doesn’t make me too bad. I am arachnophobic, absolutely. I grew up with two sisters who also were afraid of spiders, though. So, it’s developed into this weird– it’s really hard for me to see a spider and not kill it. And I know that that doesn’t make me a very good person. Because, you know, spiders are living things too. And they have a role. But when they’re in my house, then they’re invading. Yep, that’s the one. That’s the easy one. There are other fears that I’m sure are much deeper, but I think we’ll stick with that today.

16. If you were singing karaoke, what would your song be?

Yeah, I think this is one that you got to think about a little bit and be careful because I don’t think I’ve ever actually done karaoke. But if you go through my iTunes and see songs that I play a lot, and am not afraid to sing to if I’m like, driving by myself, Good Charlotte is definitely a band. I do a lot of like of post punk, alternative rock sort of stuff. And so I Just Want to Live by Good Charlotte, probably the number one song that I know all the lyrics to.

17. What is your most treasured possession?

Yeah, so definitely the cats. Yeah, that that would be it. they’re shared, but Maximus and Lily are my cats. They are strays that we picked up when they were kittens, and they are adorable and lovely, and fluffy. And yeah, so that’s definitely most treasured possession right there.

18. What personal trait are you most grateful for having?

I’m neurotic about some things. But one thing I’m not neurotic about, and it makes me happy, is food. And I just, I am happy with whatever food you give me, as long as it doesn’t make me sick. Um, and I find a lot of people really like food. And they’re like, really, really into it. And they get really excited about it. And they really enjoy it. And they get way more excited than I do. But they also get way more disappointed than I do, whenever it’s not the way they want it. And I think that that’s nice. I like that I’m similar with TV shows, I’m easy for movies, I’m pretty easy to please with those sorts of things. And so I might not get quite as into them as a lot of people. But I also am just generally content about those sorts of things. And I think that that is, I have enough stress in my life. I’m glad that’s not one of them.

19. What three people would join you for your dream dinner party?

Someone who’s living right now, there’s a chance I actually could talk to them. So it’s got to be someone who’s dead, or otherwise it’s not as interesting. And then the other big consideration here is, it’s really hard to get an individual’s perspective on something really big and overarching. So, like a lot of history, I feel is really determined by these large scale systematic changes, that it’s hard for one individual to really speak to over the course of a dinner conversation. So it’s probably going to be more fun to be talking to people who can speak to and converse with particular events in time.

So, things that are going to happen over the course of less than a human lifespan. And so then you start thinking about what are some really interesting things that happened? Well, one thing that just fascinates me in history is the Mongols. They’re just so different from so many other empires that have existed. And so somebody I don’t think I’d really want to talk to Genghis Khan, both because of the fear and the bias that you’re going to get talking to the individual, but talking to like a wife of Genghis Khan or a second command is someone who’d be close to him. It could be really interesting to get to know that person who did all these, like, terrible things, but also great things, you know, like a Voldemort sort of vibe there. Talking to someone like that would be really, really interesting.

I also think in a similar vein, you could go to somebody like Alexander the Great, or Gaius Marius or, or Julius Caesar, somebody like that would be very interesting. I definitely know a lot more Western history than I do, like African history or Asian history, by the way. So that’s probably where I go to. Then, the last person I was thinking about recently, it was Herodotus. So, Herodotus is this guy who does a lot of writing in ancient Greece, about daily life. But he also does a lot of writing that intersects with certain sciences, and especially both astronomy in the strict sense and astrology in the loose sense. And I think that that would be just a really fascinating person to talk to, because he clearly, based on his writings, was thinking very broadly, but also had a lot of appreciation for the small scale stuff. So I think those are the sorts of people that I’d like to like to talk to Herodotus is one individual I would say, Yeah, definitely. And then after that, you take some of these, like big, you know, big disruptors in history, and not talk to them, but talk to like a wife or a second-in-command, somebody who would know them, but also have a little bit more detachment.

20. What is your best quality? And what is your worst quality?

You can go  a few ways with this. I mean, one thing that kind of might cut both ways, is that I really do try to be very careful and very thoughtful. So I’m sorry, I don’t know what the best word for this is. Maybe it’s like diligent with my science. I’ll turn over a lot of stones. I try to look at things a lot of different ways. I try to break my hypotheses. So I think that that sort of carefulness and thoroughness is often a really good thing for getting a robust answer. I think that it also can be a good thing for making important decisions in life. And on the other hand, that can be a really bad thing from a perfectionist issue. It means that I’m not always very efficient, it means that I sometimes spend too much time on what I perceive as being my duty or my work, and not as much time on like social relationships, which also are important, but are a lot harder to quantify. And I think it also means that sometimes I can be exhausting, in terms of when I’m making a decision or analyzing something that just happened. And so I think that that both frustrates other people about me, and puts me at a disadvantage, sometimes It’s not always a very good thing. Not something I always like about myself, but on the other hand, sometimes it can be a great asset, it can be a great benefit. And it means that I think that I can produce good work with that. So that might be a good nuanced answer to that.

21. If you did not take this career path, what would you have chosen?

I went to college, mainly because my mother thought it was a good idea. Like, seriously, that’s, that’s why. And I like school. I did well in school. So it seemed like a place where I could succeed, but she just said it opens up doors for you. I didn’t know what those doors were. So, if I didn’t end up doing what I’ve done, the most likely scenarios is that I probably would end up working with my dad. I mean, he’s a small business owner. He doesn’t have any employees but he works in landscaping slash construction, kind of, whatever you want to call it. He has an excavator and a dump truck, and he digs things. And I probably would end up doing what he did. And honestly, both my brother and I, at certain point, he like, you know, introduced us to his work, but he never pushed us to do what he did. And I’m looking at this right now and saying, dang, you know, he’s got a lot of clients, he’s got a good reputation. And when he’s when he retires, there’s no one who’s going to pick that up. It would have been a really easy thing to do, you wouldn’t have to have gone into college debt, you’d still be able to work with geology to some degree, because you have to understand some geology to understand how to do what he does. That actually could have been a good career path that would have had maybe less stress in some ways. But then there’s a lot of stress in other ways that I can think of that he has. So yeah, I’d probably be stressed no matter what. But that’s probably what I’d end up doing. Because it definitely was something that was available and possible.

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