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July - August 2005

SOARS marks 10th anniversary

Former protégé, Lacey Holland (left) is now working as an associate scientist with RAL's Barb Brown, one of her former mentors.(All photos by Carlye Calvin.)

Ten years ago this summer, about a dozen college students arrived at NCAR for a new educational program called Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science, or SOARS. A decade later, these first protégés and others who followed are cycling through graduate school and joining the ranks of professional scientists.

"SOARS really encouraged me to pursue the graduate degree that I had always wanted, and now I am less than one year away from earning my Ph.D.," says former protégé Sarah Tessendorf, a doctoral candidate in atmospheric sciences at Colorado State University who serves on the SOARS Steering Committee. "Beyond the science in SOARS, I learned to cherish working with a diverse group of people, and my career goals now include working with students from all backgrounds to encourage them to pursue their dreams as SOARS has done for me."

Director Raj Pandya says that the 10th anniversary is especially significant because enough time has gone by for protégés to have advanced through graduate school and begun careers. Of the 97 protégés who have participated in SOARS, some of whom are still undergraduates, 30 are enrolled in master's programs, 15 are doctoral candidates, 3 have completed Ph.D.s, and 1 is employed at NCAR.

Raj Pandya.

"Ten years is a good time to start looking at the results of SOARS, in the sense of seeing how many protégés have gone on to get master's degrees and Ph.D.s and enter the workforce as scientists," Raj says. "We are just starting to see the first groups come out the other end."

Last year, Lacey Holland became the first former protégé to be hired as a fulltime NCAR employee. An associate scientist in RAL, she's working on forecast verification techniques with Barb Brown, who was one of her mentors along with RAL's Marcia Politovich and HAO's Maura Hagan. She says the experience of doing research was the most important part of SOARS for her, but the program also helped her polish writing skills, attend conferences, and meet people in the field.

SOARS protégé Keith Goodman (left) gets advice from EOL's Scott Ellis.

"Overall, SOARS is great preparation for graduate school and a career as a scientist," Lacey says. "I am very fortunate to have had such smart, caring people mentor me as a student during my SOARS experience, and now to work with them as
a professional."

Raj says he hopes that SOARS will eventually be able to accept more students; the program can currently accommodate only 20-30% of applicants. He also wants to create more ways to connect protégés with UCAR universities. "One tentative idea we have discussed with universities is a SOARS program that links UCAR with the universities by having protégés do their first summers here and second at a graduate school. We could get more mentors this way, and it would be enjoyable to work with a number of different universities," he says.

Through partnerships within and outside UCAR, SOARS has expanded its scope to offer more diverse research opportunities across the geosciences. Raj says he wants to allow students to pursue their interests even further. "SOARS protégés are interested in doing research and also being involved in education and outreach and policy," he says. "We want to find opportunities to nurture this."

Evolution of a successful program

Protégé Olusegun Goyea (left, with EOL's David Rogers and Tom Horst, examines a forward scattering spectrometer probe, which measures cloud particles.

Since its beginnings, SOARS has aimed to broaden participation in the geosciences by recruiting promising undergraduate students from historically underrepresented and minority groups. The high point of the year-round activities comes each summer, when the program offers 10-week, paid internships for about two dozen students to conduct research projects with scientists at NCAR and other labs. In addition to research and mentoring components, the program provides career counseling and serves as an ongoing learning community to help transition students from college to graduate school.

Among the many kudos SOARS has garnered is a 2002 Presidential Award for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

SOARS evolved out of a UCAR program called SEP (Summer Employment Program). On a visit to NCAR in 1994, former National Science Foundation director Neal Lane met with SEP students to brainstorm the ingredients of a program that would successfully retain students in the atmospheric sciences. The result was a proposal for SOARS that won funding from NSF. In April 1996, Tom Windham, who had worked as a consultant for the program, was hired as director, and the program was launched two months later.

SOARS protégé Nicole Ngo (left) with Unidata's Jo Hansen.

"The biggest challenge was the amount of time we had," Tom recalls. "From April to June was not a lot of time to select the inaugural class and have the program up and running. The SOARS advisory committee along with staff in Human Resources played essential roles in getting the program off the ground."

Tom directed SOARS for eight years. He credits the program's success to the fact that it has always received support throughout the UCAR community and from its sponsors, especially NSF's Atmospheric Sciences Division. He also points out that SOARS is a learning community that involves protégés for multiple summers, pays them reasonable salaries, and provides proper mentoring. "I think the SOARS story points out that diversity programs as they are currently called can be successful when properly thought out and appropriately supported, with the host institution invested in the success of the program," Tom says.

After Tom accepted a position with NSF in 2004 as the agency's senior adviser for science and engineering workforce, Raj, who was working in DLESE at the time and had served as both a SOARS science and writing mentor, took over as director.

A decade of mentorship

The anniversary marks 10 years for not only the protégés, but also the staffers who have mentored them over the years. This year, as in many previous years, the number of volunteer mentors exceeded the number of protégés. "It just can't work without the dedicated volunteers and mentors who share their summers with protégés," says Beverly Johnson, SOARS program administrator. "Knowing that these relationships continue much beyond the summer experience, even for years, is a confirming aspect of this program."

Jo Hansen (Unidata) has been a mentor for eight years—seven as a writing mentor and one as a community mentor. "Every year it's like a window into a new world for me," she says. "It seems new because I am seeing the organization from
a fresh perspective. I find that energizing."

To celebrate the anniversary, the protégés organized a reunion in June attended by about 35 former and current protégés. More than 50 people in all participated, including Raj, Tom, and UCAR president Rick Anthes. The weekend involved a reception, hiking, field trips, and the SOARS tradition of a "Soul Food Sunday" potluck.

This summer, 21 protégés are participating in the program. "It's another amazing summer with smart, hardworking protégés and generous, wise mentors," Raj says.

The SOARS colloquium was held August 8-10, with a recognition celebration on August 11

• by Nicole Gordon

On the Web

For more about SOARS

Protégé Melissaa Burt (left) examines a model of an ice core with CGD's Carrie Morrill

ACD's Andy Weinheimer and protégé Karen Diaz, adjust an ozone chemiluminescence instrument that makes measurements of ozone from aircraft.

Also in this issue...

A global view

Six new senior scientists named

SOARS marks 10th anniversary

Engaging science students

Pedaling for a cause

New SERE center emphasizes climate education

Fellowship honors a unique research partnership

HAO moves to CG1

Just One Look


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