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Celebrating Pi Day with Chris Piecuch

Chris Piecuch
Chris Piecuch working on calculations for an upcoming study. (Photo by Danny Hentz, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Celebrate “Pi Day” by getting to know WHOI physical oceanographer Chris Piecuch! Not only is his name fitting for the occasion, he uses the mathematical constant in his daily work. Piecuch studies the rate of sea level rise in different locations and the factors that play a role in it.


How did you get into ocean science? Or what fascinates you about it?

"When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be a chef. But I learned quickly after working in kitchens that I couldn’t handle the heat! Since I’d always been good at math, my mom thought I should be an engineer," Piecuch said. "Because of that, I started college as an engineering major, but that didn’t work either: I wasn’t handy, tactile, or pragmatic enough. So, I switched my major to physics, which I thought was more contemplative and philosophical. One day I saw a taped-up piece of paper on one of the windows of the physics building that advertised a summer undergraduate internship with one of the faculty at the oceanography campus a few miles down the road. And so I wrote an email to that faculty member saying I was interested, and the rest is history!"


Can you describe what you study in two or three sentences?

"I’m really fascinated by sea level change," he said. "One thing that’s super interesting is that sea level doesn’t change at the same rate everywhere, and some places experience faster rates than others—even though sea level is rising on a global average, almost nowhere experiences that global-mean rate of change! I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out what processes occur on our planet that cause sea levels to change in such an uneven way across the ocean."


How does math play a role in your work? Do you ever use the mathematical constant pi?

"Math comes into everything I do! And I use pi constantly (no pun intended)! For example, pi comes into a lot of the equations we use to describe ocean waves. And pi appears in the definition of the normal distribution—otherwise known as the bell curve—which can be a helpful way to describe how many aspects of the ocean vary across space and through time."


What is your favorite type of pie?

"Pizza pie!"