Researcher Spotlight (first published in 2021): Watching a fast-paced NBA basketball game, most sports fans rarely pause to reflect on the analytics underpinning a team’s game strategy. But the data are there.
“When a player is on the court, we can track where they are at any given time,” says Peter Sherman, a Ph.D. candidate in Earth and Planetary Sciences, and researcher with the Harvard-China Project. “This is actually very similar to climate data as both highlight the importance of how things evolve spatially over time.” Zeroing in on players’ tracking metrics is akin to Peter’s approach to scientific data, so contacting the Minnesota Timberwolves two years ago was only natural. The proposal, which the Timberwolves accepted, was simple—for Peter to remotely help gather and study game data to translate them into playmaking insights for NBA coaches and players.
Peter’s interest in data extends far beyond the NBA, to matters of planetary importance. Here at Harvard, he is currently mentored by Michael B. McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Science and Chair of the Harvard-China Project. Peter is working with McElroy on intersections between climate, renewable energy systems, and air quality, ranging from how shifting regional climate affects wind power potentials or pollution concentrations to how energy systems can best exploit renewable resources as they evolve. One of his recent publications shows how declining wind speeds in China and India—two focal areas of Peter’s research, as key nations in global decarbonization—might even help their power systems accommodate larger shares of wind power, by reducing its temporal variability. Recently published in Environmental Research Letters, the study was the subject of a SEAS Communications profile.
Despite the pandemic’s limitations, Peter has found weekly Zoom meetings with other Harvard-China Project researchers not only enjoyable but helpful, fostering research collaborations such as an upcoming paper on electrolytic production of “green” hydrogen using offshore wind in China. “I did the offshore wind power calculations,” says Peter. “And then Haiyang Lin, Visiting Fellow, and Shaojie Song, Research Associate, used that information to calculate how much hydrogen could be feasibly generated and cost-effectively supplied to domestic and international markets.”
Collaborations with other researchers first led Peter towards a pursuit of climate change scholarship. In particular, he credits his previous mentor Erik van Sebille at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change with introducing him to scientific research. Peter originally intended to embark on a career in space physics while pursuing his joint Bachelor’s/Master's degrees, but after an internship focused on how best to remove microplastics from the ocean, he shifted his focus. After that internship, the team published its results in Environmental Research Letters. The success of the paper highlighted how timely and impactful Peter’s work could be. “It got quite a bit of press, so the fact that I could see the real-world impacts of this research pushed me in the direction of environmental science,” says Peter.
After experiencing the value of mentorships, Peter is now giving back to emerging scientists. “I have been blessed with a lot of great mentors throughout my research career, and because of that I feel I also need to give back to younger students who should also have such opportunities.” With support of the Harvard-China Project, he has been mentoring undergraduate Jonathan D’Souza (ESPP, class of 2023) as well as two high school students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School on a study of how India’s climate may be affected by emissions changes as the world transitions out of the COVID-19 shutdown. All merited co-authorship of the resulting paper, now submitted and undergoing peer review. Post-Ph.D., Peter is also looking forward to expanding his research and mentorships through a career in academia. And, hopefully, participating in NBA games by continuing his data analysis on the side.
By Kellie Nault, Harvard-China Project