In memory of Dr. Sarah White, UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow

Sarah White

Photo credit: Tessa Hill

Sarah White obtained her undergraduate degree in Geological Sciences from UC Santa Barbara in 2006, graduating with the highest GPA in her class.  She worked for 2 years as a staff geologist at Northgate Environmental Management in Oakland, CA, before returning to academia.  She obtained her Masters of Science in Geology at UC Davis in 2012, and continued her studies in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Santa Cruz, earning her Ph.D. in 2019.  She was awarded a prestigious UC President’s Postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley, working in the Department of Geography between 2020-2022.  She had just completed her fellowship and started a new position at San Francisco State University prior to her untimely passing in July 2022 from complications due to Covid-19.

Sarah was a foremost scholar on the climate of the Pliocene, and a rising star in the field of paleoceanography and paleoclimate.  Her Ph.D. work focused on the workings of the tropical Pacific, which is thought to be in a ‘permanent El Nino’ state during the early Pliocene.  Her research was the first to quantify the variability of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation during this period of Earth’s history, determining that El Ninos were muted during the early Pliocene compared to present, before becoming intermittently more active by the mid-Pliocene.  In a separate work, she also showed that El Ninos were muted in the early and middle Holocene.  Finally, she also quantified the Pliocene evolution of the east-west sea surface temperature gradient in the equatorial Pacific, resolving a known uncertainty around this question.

For her postdoctoral work, she expanded her Pliocene research scope towards hydroclimate changes over North America.  She compiled sediment records from lakes to map out hydroclimate changes over North America, helped improve a modeling framework for interpreting lake size in terminal basins, and was comparing inferences from these lake records to other Pliocene terrestrial paleoclimate proxy reconstructions and climate models.  She was also working on understanding atmospheric controls of precipitation isotopes over western North America, in order to better interpret stable isotope proxy records in the region.

Sarah was dedicated towards increasing accessibility for STEM education.She was a strong believer in public education, being a product of the California public education system from elementary through graduate school.   At UC Santa Cruz, she helped lead a graduate student-run group that sought to build community between faculty and graduate students, and tackle barriers faced by women and minorities in the geosciences.  At UC Berkeley, she helped form and served in our department’s inaugural antiracism working group, offering her knowledge and experience of her work at UC Santa Cruz.

Sarah left a deep impression on all who interacted with her. She was enthusiastic about science and research, willing to talk to anyone about her work, and brimming with ideas that she wanted to pursue.  She was warm and generous, and for those who knew and worked with her she was a caring colleague and a wonderful friend.  She will be greatly missed.