Melissa Allen-Dumas and the fight against climate change, one neighborhood at a time


Originally posted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The world is full of “huge, thorny issues,” as Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher and musician Melissa Allen-Dumas puts it, no matter what field you work in. This was certainly the case when she was struggling with a difficult piece of music.

“There are parts in music that are much more difficult than others and require a lot more practice,” said Allen-Dumas, who has played and taught violin and viola professionally for much of this period. his life. “It’s important to take them and break them down into bite-size pieces that are easier on yourself and work out the little things. “

It turns out that chopping big problems into manageable chunks is also at the heart of his job now as a computer scientist in the Computer Science and Engineering Division at ORNL. There, she tackles global climate change by developing methodologies that reduce this big thorny problem at the level of cities, even specific neighborhoods. By bringing together different types of data – on weather, building sizes and shapes, migration patterns and demographics, for example – it sheds light on the effects of climate change at the local scale and how best to communities can prepare for it.

In a 2020 study using data from the ORNL campus and a Chicago neighborhood, for example, Allen-Dumas and his co-authors used computer simulations to project how the various proposed developments would affect the site microclimate. They learned that, depending on variables such as building design, land use and population density, certain scenarios would lead to significantly warmer microclimates. In addition, these effects have extended beyond the boundaries of the development and into the surrounding area.

Buildings consume three-quarters of the electricity used in the United States, so being able to assess the effect of their shapes and sizes could help cities better mitigate climate change. Allen-Dumas hopes his methodologies can be developed into tools that climate change officials can use at the local level.

“Looking at it from a climate perspective,” she said, “I’m fascinated by the idea that a few people can make a huge difference, and I’d like to see that in action.”

From music to science

As a child, Allen-Dumas knew that science had the power to make a difference. His father, Dan McGuire, was a nuclear physicist – a career that eventually led him to ORNL. Although she did not understand her work in detail, she grew up with an appreciation for science and the scientific method, a theme that continued throughout her life.

It was the music, however, that first captured his imagination. Growing up in northern Colorado, she absorbed the string music played both on the stereo and at the hands of musicians who came for bows and instrument repairs, a side concert from her father. She started violin lessons at the age of nine and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Northern Colorado. In the years that followed, she performed and taught music and choir.

But science reappeared as a theme in her life when, at the age of 30, she married John Allen, computer scientist at ORNL. After moving to eastern Tennessee, Allen-Dumas dove deeper into science when she resumed her new husband’s passion for flying single-engine planes. Working for her own pilot’s license, she learned about wind, temperature and humidity, and how to apply that knowledge in a practical way.

“It really interested me about the atmosphere and the weather,” Allen-Dumas said.

After her husband’s death in 2007, however, that interest became a mission as Allen-Dumas began to see her life from a new perspective. With science, she thought, she could make a bigger difference.

“I realized I was at a transition in my life in a lot of ways,” Allen-Dumas said. “So if I had to move from music to science, now was the time to do it.”

Allen-Dumas enrolled at the University of Tennessee, where she earned a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Then, thanks to the ORNL-affiliated Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Higher Education, she obtained a doctorate in energy science and engineering. Since then, she has been linked to ORNL, obtaining an internship and then a postdoctoral fellowship before engaging as a scientific researcher in 2017.

Allen-Dumas didn’t find his rhythm immediately on ORNL’s sprawling campus. Early on, as an atmospheric scientist working in the former Geographic Information Science and Technology group, she felt like a violinist in the percussion section. But she grew to appreciate the new ideas that can arise when working with specialists in other fields. By integrating his climate and weather data with the high-resolution demographics of his colleagues – they could decompose America’s populations to the size of a New York block – the collaborators could, Allen-Dumas realized, see and predict the effects of climate change on many smaller and more actionable scales.

“If you understand where the population is and understand the weather and climate that passes through a certain space, then you can understand a lot about the interactions,” Allen-Dumas said. “There is a huge opportunity for the integration of these things. “

Become his science

Allen-Dumas has built his career on this opportunity. Much of his research examines climate impacts on critical infrastructure and the unique challenges facing the Southeastern United States, which produces more carbon dioxide and has a faster growing population than other regions of the United States. country.

In a study examining data from Knoxville and Atlanta, Allen-Dumas and his co-authors demonstrated a methodology for planning future land, water and energy needs in the face of climate change. The study detailed numerous scenarios for these cities, highlighting the advantages and tradeoffs of each. Atlanta could reduce its carbon footprint by investing heavily in solar power, for example, but that route would require significant land resources. The results could help planners make better decisions when planning long-term infrastructure investments.

Allen-Dumas’ other work includes developing a method to determine which areas of electrical service in the southern United States will be most vulnerable as the population increases and temperatures rise, and an analysis of the post-Katrina climate migration revealing where the quarter of New Orleans residents who left the city for good ended up.

In his research, Allen-Dumas also finds evidence of how underprivileged communities are disproportionately suffering from climate change, a problem the federal government is seeking to address. In an upcoming study of the city of Las Vegas, for example, she and her colleagues found that the most vulnerable populations tend to live in older buildings in the hottest part of town. Currently, Allen-Dumas is working on models that predict what the cities of the future will look like and how to take into account these new urban morphologies in climate change simulations.

ORNL’s world-class supercomputers and massive data sets have been essential to its work, Allen-Dumas said. But more important, she said, is the ability to collaborate with lab colleagues who are recognized authorities in various areas of expertise. Her musical career has prepared her well for scientific teamwork.

“There are times when you have to conduct – you have to play that first violin part really well – you have to be the rising tune in the projects,” said Allen-Dumas, who follows his music as a member of two quartets. local. . “And there are other times when you have to play a supporting role – harmony, so to speak – just as well.”

Increasingly, Allen-Dumas wants to help not only his fellow scientists, but also government and industry representatives on the ground make decisions about the future of their communities. Inviting these stakeholders to add their voices to her work, she said, could help her create better tools for them to assess their options.

“I think those of us who do science, when we see the results, think, ‘Oh, those speak for themselves,'” she said. “But I’m not sure these things speak for themselves when decision makers have to make a decision for tomorrow and next year and decades and into the future. I think we’re now at a point where we maybe want to start involving stakeholders in helping design science.

After all, when it comes to the huge and thorny issue of climate change, we all have a role to play.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Office of Science of the Department of Energy, the largest support for basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

Kristen coyne

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