Ten years of mentoring

Gauging the success of SOARS

Now an NCAR associate scientist, Lacey Holland (left), who was part of the very first cohort of SOARS protégés, works with one of her former SOARS mentors, Barbara Brown, on forecast verification techniques. (All photos by Carlye Calvin.)

by Bob Henson

As twentysomethings greeted each other with hugs and swapped stories, the gathering atop the University of Colorado's Gamow Tower on 17 June had the feel of a class reunion. It was exactly that—the 10th anniversary reunion of protégés in UCAR's Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science program.

SOARS is starting its second decade on a high note, as the program's effort to generate more doctorate holders from underrepresented groups begins to pay off (see graphic). Three SOARS alumni to date (Christopher Castro, Naressa Cofield, and Rachel Vincent-Finley) have earned Ph.D.s, and 15 others are now working on doctorates. "After sophomores are admitted to the program, it's not unreasonable for them to take three years to earn their bachelor's degrees and another six or so to earn their Ph.D.s," explains SOARS director Rajul Pandya. "So it's not surprising we are only now seeing the first SOARS alumni earning their doctorates."

Thirty SOARS protégés are now in master's programs. In all, more than half of the 97 protégés to date have entered graduate school, with nearly all of them attending UCAR universities.

Quantifying quality

There are obvious and not-so-obvious ways to measure the accomplishments of a program like SOARS. Among its many kudos are a 2002 Presidential Award for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. For some underrepresented groups, such as African Americans, the current numbers of atmospheric scientists are so tiny that even a handful of new Ph.D.s makes a big difference percentage-wise. But how do participants as a whole—mentors, graduating protégés, and those who take other paths—view the SOARS experience?

Rajul Pandya.

To help find out, in 2003 NSF went to the multidisciplinary Ethnography & Evaluation Research group at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The E&ER team, well known for its work in evaluating science and engineering programs, was asked to identify, categorize, and clarify the relative importance of factors contributing to the acknowledged success of the SOARS program.

"It's been a fairly exhaustive process," says Pandya of the two-year study. Many mentors and almost every protégé were interviewed, a real achievement in itself; many similar programs struggle to keep tabs on their former participants. According to the founding director of SOARS, Thomas Windham (now at NSF), "Tracking all protégés was a high priority from the inception of SOARS. This helped to make what is often found to be an unthinkable task reasonable."

The main goal of the E&ER evaluation was to extract the most critical ingredients from the SOARS recipe. "They aren't just looking at whether SOARS is successful," says Pandya, "but why it's successful—the strategies that can be pulled from it and used in other contexts."

Protégé progress

The graphic below illustrates how each of the 97 SOARS protégés to date (including those from 2005) is faring. Of the 97, 35 are from UCAR members or affiliates.

16 are currently enrolled as undergrads.

18 left SOARS before completion. Of those, 10 failed to satisfy program requirements and 8 changed fields.

63 have completed their undergraduate degrees. Of those, 52 entered master's programs (45 of those at UCAR member institutions), 2 went directly into Ph.D. programs, 6 entered the science-technology work force, and 3 are exploring other options.

Of the 52 who have entered master's programs, 28 have finished. 14 of those are now working in science-technology fields and the other 14 entered Ph.D. programs (with 3 having graduated already).

The E&ER team transcribed 201 interviews, coding the text to allow for quantatitive analysis. Its final report, available in August, gives the program high marks. Protégés praise the financial help with schooling, the multiyear and multiple-mentor design of SOARS, and the dedication of the program's staff. Mentors note the quality of the protégés, the support of UCAR management, and the program's summer-by-summer flexibility that allows them to participate as workloads allow.

The survey also provides ideas for improving SOARS, says Pandya. "The suggestions so far have focused on two areas: helping maintain and even strengthen the supportive learning community that develops among SOARS protégés, and further refining the alreadyuseful writing workshops."

Mentor Mary Barth and first-year protégé Marco Orozco examined the processes within thunderstorms that affect soluble, reactive chemicals.

Looking ahead

SOARS experienced a slight funding dip this summer, as budgets in agencies that provide non-NSF support took a hit. But SOARS' leaders are eager to stretch the program as dollars permit. "There's an enormous capacity for growth in SOARS," says Pandya. This summer, as in many years past, there were more UCAR and NCAR staff volunteering as mentors than the program could accommodate. SOARS staff hunt for the best matches between protégés and potential mentors and encourage extra volunteers to sign on in future summers.

Pandya would like to entrain more protégés from allied fields such as chemistry and engineering. "Atmospheric science has a noble tradition of drawing people from other disciplines," he notes. Conversely, some SOARS alumni have found work outside atmospheric science at places such as Boeing and NASA's Glenn Research Center, helping to diversify U.S. science and engineering in a broader sense.

Other alumni set their sights on returning to NCAR, where their research lives began. Lacey Holland, a protégé during SOARS' first three years, earned her bachelor's in meteorology at the University of Oklahoma and a master's at the University of Utah, then joined NOAA. In 2004 Holland became an associate scientist at NCAR's Research Applications Laboratory. She's working on forecast verification techniques with Barbara Brown, one of Holland's three science mentors during SOARS. The other two were solar physicist Maura Hagan and aviation weather expert Marcia Politovich.

"I'm very fortunate to have had such smart, caring people mentor me during my SOARS experience, and now to work with one of them as a professional," says Holland. She adds that some things haven't changed since her SOARS days. "You still write papers and reports, meet demanding deadlines, go to meetings, give presentations, and find time to do the science. One difference from SOARS is that now I get to see and be involved in more of the behind-the-scenes action that leads to the science."



Third-year protégé Braxton Edwards (left) used GIS to assess flood risk for Colorado's Front Range with NCAR mentors Olga Wilhelmi and Rebecca Morss.

UOP's Anne Wilson (left) advised second-year protégé Shanna-Shaye Forbes on adapting decoder software to enable data distribution via InterNet News.


Also in this issue:

Reflective research

Observation transformation: The new EOL

Ten years of SOARS

Climate affairs

ESMF: Plug-and-play modeling

New ESSL head

Catarina up close: Brazil's bizarre storm

Science Bit: The case of the disappearing lakes

President's Corner