Episode 22: Jerry Mitrovica

Jerry Mitrovica from Harvard University sits at the surprisingly wobbly interface between the solid Earth, oceans and ice. Trained in serious geophysics, Jerry quickly found a niche in explaining how movements of the Earth’s mantle – in three dimensions – control the apparent variation of past sea levels. In many cases, this means pointing out that many or all of our records of past sea level are fundamentally altered by processes like dynamic topography and isostatic rebound.

Credit: Jim Lor.

Jerry was born to a Greek mother and Albanian father. Their meeting in the aftermath of WW II remains fuzzy, but they soon immigrated to Melbourne, where Jerry was born as the youngest of seven siblings. Although Melbourne supported a small and vibrant Albania expat community, the move never gelled for family, and they moved to Toronto.

The shift proved difficult, as Jerry’ charismatic and intellectual father died soon after, leaving the family in dire financial straits. The local Albanian community responded by pooling together money for a down payment on a house, where Jerry’s mother lived for the rest of her life, but still … “It was my mother trying to keep the family together and survive … a widow with seven children in her late 40s”.

Jerry, however, loved Toronto, staying for all of his subsequent schooling and his initial academic career. He initially tried a PhD at Cambridge, but felt isolated and adrift. The overseas experiment lasted only a month, and Jerry returned to Toronto, where he had a strained relationship with his PhD advisor. As he says, “I wouldn’t say my PhD in Toronto was the happiest time in my life.” But the experience at Cambridge provided considerable motivation to get through, and to thrive. “I thought that leaving Cambridge after a month was a failure. I didn’t want to fail again.”

Along the way, Jerry got some key advice: “You know, you’re a theorist…you need to go to a place where data is primary”. He did, joining Irwin Shapiro at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and it provided to be one of those fortuitous collaborations that seem to define the careers of successful scientists. “It’s just one of these wonderful things that you luck into in life, that I worked with people that were trying to build that capability, at just the time I had developed the expertise to model that.”

Jerry made predictions about rates of post-glacial isostatic rebound before the requisite GPS data existed. The predictions proved to be correct, but at the time it was a bit terrifying, and Jerry had real fears about the career consequences of being wrong “Graduate students and postdocs, even though many of them won’t admit this to you, feel extremely vulnerable. You don’t want to make a major mistake, because that’s when you’re looking for a job”.

Jerry is now famous for bringing geophysical insights to the sea level debate: gravitational attraction, sea level fingerprints, rotational shifts, isostatic rebound, and near field and far field effects have now fully oozed into the field to such an extent that it is almost impossible to imagine interpreting any sort of sea level record – be it tide gauges, salt marshes, corals, beach terraces – without considering the possible confounding effects. For many of these records, “It’s a lens alright, but it’s a contaminated, distorted lens”. Without a solid geological interpretation, some pretty big miscalculations can result.

Now, Jerry is collaborating with his students and people like Bob Kopp to bring a statistical approach to the interpretation of modern sea level rise, or sea level rise in past interglacials. As Jerry puts it, the approach is needed because “sea level records aren’t just noisy, they’re sparse”.

We spoke in aftermath of the passing of important people in Jerry life: scientists Adam Dziewonski and Rick O’Connell, as well as Jerry’s mother. Some of our conversation was, perhaps as a result, focused on the transience of academic life. As Jerry said, “That transience …takes getting used to. But in this case of course I lost colleagues that I was hoping would be around a whole lot longer”. Science and life certainly are transient, but Jerry’s work has made a major impact on geosciences that is clearly  inspiring the next generation.

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