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1998/1999

A More Perfect Science

Atmospheric research used to be a world away.
Now it's part of your world.

How does a national laboratory in Boulder touch the lives of people in the smallest of towns? For Stephanie Rivale, it's through a mentorship program that's smoothed her path toward a doctorate. For middle-school teachers across Colorado's isolated plains and mountain valleys, it's through a series of visits that help them connect atmospheric science to rural lives.


1949:

Joanne Simpson completes her doctorate at the University of Chicago, becoming the nation's first woman to gain a Ph.D. in atmospheric science. Her choice of a dissertation topic--cumulus clouds--is labeled by one faculty member as the ideal topic "for a little girl," because "no one else is interested and you can stand out." Among the many high points in Simpson's later professional life: receiving the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal in 1983 for her "outstanding contributions to our understanding of convective clouds."


1960:

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the late Charles Anderson becomes the first African American to earn a doctorate in atmospheric science, going on to an eminent career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Anderson is followed by Warren Washington, who joins NCAR in 1963 while completing his doctorate at Pennsylvania State University. Washington, now an NCAR senior scientist, served as president of the American Meteorological Society in 1994 and joined the National Science Board's executive committee in 1998.


1972:

June Bacon-Bercey, an African-American weathercaster in Buffalo, New York, becomes the first woman to earn the AMS Seal of Approval for television meteorologists.


1975:

The AMS Board on Women and Minorities is established. NCAR's Margaret LeMone serves as its first chair and, in 1992, becomes NCAR's first female senior scientist. She is joined at that rank by Chin-Hoh Moeng in 1995.


1980:

Following a previous program in its Advanced Study Division, NCAR launches its Summer Employment Program, bringing a select group of minority undergraduates to the center each summer for internships.


1991:

Project LEARN, funded by NSF, is launched as the inaugural K-12 education program at NCAR and UCAR.


1996:

The SOARS program begins at UCAR.

A young chemist SOARS

Saguache (pronounced "sa-WATCH"), population 700, is a border town of sorts, sitting on the edge of Colorado's San Luis Valley amid pine-layered mountains. It's also Stephanie Rivale's home town. Her father is a cattle rancher with a college background in biology. "He encouraged us," says Rivale, who took a shine to chemistry early on. A much-loved high school science teacher "challenged me to do a little more," sometimes taking fully earned credit off her tests "just to challenge me."

Rivale won an award from Xerox Corp. her senior year that included a visit to the University of Rochester and waived application fees. She checked the school out, liked it, and got accepted. Rivale picked chemical engineering as her major: "Chemistry was my favorite subject in high school, but I couldn't picture myself in a lab for the rest of my life." After two years of successful study, Stephanie's mental picture of her future was no clearer. Then she applied to a new program at UCAR: Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS). In June 1996 she came to Boulder for the summer, one of 13 initial participants chosen out of more than 140 applicants from colleges and universities around the country.

By the end of that summer, SOARS had given Rivale what college thus far had not: a vision of her career. She embarked on a research project involving air pollution that would later become her focus for graduate work. "I figured out that atmospheric chemistry is what I really liked. You can do research, but you're not stuck in a basement somewhere."

What SOARS did for Rivale is exactly what its founders had hoped. The program was developed by UCAR and NSF under the leadership of UCAR president Richard Anthes and associate vice president for human resources Edna Comedy. Its goal is to address the serious dearth of women and most ethnic minorities in atmospheric and related research. In a 1994 survey of members of the American Meteorological Society, only 0.7% of respondents were African American, 0.3% American Indian, and 1.4% Hispanic/Latino. (Together, these groups make up at least 25% of the U.S. population.)

A program that brought minority undergraduates to NCAR for a single summer had been in place since 1980. Although students seemed to enjoy their stays, there wasn't enough time to cement the relationships with peers, advisors, and friends that the students needed to embark on a solid research career. Thus, the new program would pay for students to spend multiple summers in Boulder until they entered a graduate program and found independent support for their research or teaching.

Psychologist Tom Windham joined UCAR in 1996 with only a few weeks to pull together SOARS' first summer. He wanted to refine a model he'd long admired: an "intentional community" that has multiple mentors and protégés (the preferred name for participants) working toward a common goal. Each protégé has a research mentor, typically a UCAR scientist; a community mentor from the UCAR staff who guides the protégé through the interpersonal and organizational nuances of the institution (and Boulder); a science-writing mentor to help the protégé craft scientific and technical prose; and a peer mentor--a fellow protégé--to share the experience with. From the research underlying SOARS, "We know that learning in communities is more effective than learning as individuals," says Windham.

Despite the time pressure that first year, the SOARS model held up well. Several eminent scientists signed up to be research mentors. Each worked closely with his or her student through the summer--and often thereafter, as the protégés continued studies at their home campuses. Other scientists served more informally as role models and colleagues. Among them was chemist Susan Solomon (verifier of the Antarctic ozone hole), who was visiting NCAR in 1996 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to Windham, "It was really important for the female protégés to meet a successful woman scientist. For many of them, it was a first."

Rivale was paired with Sasha Madronich, a world expert on ultraviolet light and its effects on air chemistry and, in turn, life on earth. Using a computer model, the two explored how emissions of nitrogen oxides help to create ozone, a lifesaver in the stratosphere but a pollutant in the lower atmosphere. She and Madronich looked closely at Mexico City, where vast growth has created horrific air pollution. They were curious about a certain threshold--long observed but little understood--in nitrogen oxide levels. When levels exceed the threshold, ozone isn't produced as readily. To see how the city's geography and intense sunlight might be affecting this process, Rivale and Madronich compared Mexico City (high altitude, low latitude) with Amsterdam (low altitude, high latitude). Their first summer of work revealed that a deeper understanding of the chemical mechanism was needed, which led to collaboration with Graciela Raga of the Universidad Nacional AutĪnoma de México in Mexico City.

Each SOARS protege draws from the wisdom and experience of several mentors. Pictured here with protege Stephanie Rivale (third from left) are (left to right) scientific mentor Sasha Madronich, SOARS director Tom Windham, and community mentor Pat Baker. Madronich, a senior scientist in NCAR's Atmospheric Chemistry Division, studies ultraviolet light and its effects on air chemistry and life on earth. He was among the first to quantify potential skin-cancer increases due to global ozone depletion. With Madronich, Rivale is exploring how nitrogen oxides and ozone interact in smog-ridden Mexico City.

After two summers with SOARS, Rivale found the University of Colorado in Boulder a natural choice for graduate school in chemical engineering. She plans to pursue the Mexico City project with CU advisor Jana Milford, perhaps spending a summer there for field study under the auspices of SOARS.

The program now gets support from NOAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the U.S. Department of Energy, and some graduate-student protégés now spend their summers at their universities rather than at a research lab. Still, all are invited to return to NCAR for the August colloquium, when protégés present their work to the UCAR community at large.

"Everyone here has such an interest in our well-being," Rivale muses. "It's such a difference coming from a large university with lots of students and only a few professors. Here, it's the opposite."

Rural students LEARN from experts

Not everybody can trek to Boulder for a summer of personal contact with atmospheric scientists. UCAR has another program that exports its science to bright minds in remote places. Part road show and part science summit, LEARN: Atmospheric Science Explorers (funded by NSF) is aimed at teachers in middle and high schools in rural Colorado. It's part of a national effort to improve science education and impart a set of standards for science understanding at each grade level. The goal of LEARN is to bring teachers in touch with NCAR science so they can convey basic principles and current research to their students and to fellow teachers. About 230 teachers will have direct contact with LEARN, and over 20,000 students will see benefits.

To make this happen involves no small amount of travel. Every couple of weeks during the school year, the two coordinators of LEARN, Carol McLaren and Sandra Henderson, head out with an NCAR scientist in a government-issue station wagon. After an hour or two (or five or six), they arrive at Bayfield or Akron or Kim, towns that are little more than blurs by the roadside to most travelers--but not to LEARN. In Bayfield, recalls Henderson, "We were greeted at 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning by the smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls."

The visitors from LEARN bring science demonstrations that teachers can adapt for their classrooms: for instance, how to simulate El Niño in a plastic tub. In March 1998, 21 teachers and 105 students in Montrose listened as NCAR senior scientist Margaret LeMone gave her perspective on El Niño and tropical meteorology. "Our experts are very good at translating scientific information into lay terms for teachers and students," says McLaren. Adds Henderson, "Even though we live in the information age, the teachers aren't all connected. Some of them feel very isolated and cut off." For them, she says, LEARN can serve as an "intellectual turn-on. Suddenly their whole awareness expands. It can reinvigorate their teaching."

Roxann Hall teaches sixth grade in Akron, a wheat-farming plains town 100 miles east of Denver that's prone to violent storms. With the help of LEARN, she says, "We've been studying weather like crazy. The kids are eating it up--they're having a great time. Most of them are farmers' children, and their farms depend on the weather, so they know which storm clouds look like hail and which ones look like tornadoes." After doing LEARN-based exercises on humidity, she noted, "They can tell when it feels humid and when it feels really dry. They didn't seem to have paid much attention to that before."

LEARN also pays for each of its 35 lead teachers to spend three weeks in Boulder during each of three summers (1997-99). The summer institutes allow for more intensive contact with NCAR research through daily seminars and other interactions. In clusters of two or three, the teachers work with an NCAR scientist for a day: releasing weather balloons or shivering in a "cold room" where ice-crystal research takes place. On June 26, the next-to-last day of the 1997 institute, the visiting teachers got a bonus: a funnel cloud that they could see from their dormitories, and hailstones right outside their doors.

"They picked up hail and spent the evening processing, discussing what they'd seen," recalls McLaren. "When they came in the next morning, they were all talking at once; they were so excited to share what they had seen and learned. It was a wonderful culmination for the summer institute."

On the Web

UCAR/Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science
UCAR/Education and Training home page


HL Contents The Eleven-Year Switch Particles of Doubt A World of Cycles A More Perfect Science The Art of Counting Raindrops A Turbulent Situation Wired for Weather

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Mon Apr 10 13:23:27 MDT 2000