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A new approach to diversity in atmospheric science

It's good for an undergraduate to visit NCAR for the summer and gain a whirlwind exposure to research life. It's even better for the same student to settle with confidence into a multiyear commitment that includes several summers at UCAR and a coordinated educational experience through the master's or doctoral level.

The latter is what 13 promising undergraduates, largely from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds, have embarked on through SOARS, Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science. SOARS picks up where NCAR's 15-year Summer Employment Program (SEP) left off. The level of staff involvement is higher, and the new program is more focused and intensive. The payoffs could be enormous, especially for the future pool of research-ready Ph.D.'s in atmospheric science.

Achieving diversity in the atmospheric science work force has been an almost intractable problem for many decades. The late Charles Anderson (University of Wisconsin) and NCAR's Warren Washington were two of the first African-Americans to earn doctorates in atmospheric science. To date, there has been only a handful of others among hundreds of Ph.D.s. Recent surveys by the American Meteorological Society show that the percentage of women in the field, as well as their salaries relative to those of men, continue to increase. However, minority representation continues meager.

Why does the problem persist? The notion behind SOARS is that mere exposure to the field isn't enough. Talented students, even from solid backgrounds, can be derailed from academic careers by any number of pressures: financial, social, personal. To ensure that the best and brightest make it to the doctoral level, they need comprehensive mentoring and ample resources.

"In 1994, the UCAR Board of Trustees asked us to consider new ways to make an impact on the significant underrepresentation problem," says UCAR president Rick Anthes. "We came up with the idea of extending SEP into a multiyear program that would see the students through graduate school. Although SEP was successful, it was essentially only a ten-week program, and we really didn't have the follow-through we needed." Rick and Edna Comedy, associate vice-president for human resources, collaborated to craft the initial SOARS proposal. It was accepted by NSF in 1995.

A different kind of climate change

"If you want to have a nice garden, you don't start by buying plants," says Tom Windham, the director of SOARS. "You start by sampling the soil and getting some basic knowledge of climate so that you don't plant magnolias in Boulder. You learn the conditions under which that organism grows and thrives."

Tom Windham (Photo: Peter Bockenthien)
Tom, who joined UCAR in April, is an avid gardener. He heard about the SOARS position over the backyard fence, as it were, from fellow gardener and neighbor Beth Holland (Atmospheric Chemistry Division). Tom sees his new mission as one involving climate change, but a different kind than usual. "The kind I'm talking about is one that promotes inclusion and diversity in the work force and subsequently in the study of the atmosphere."

Tom brings more than 20 years of experience in education and psychology to his new post. A native of the Bronx, he earned his doctorate in psychology at the University of Colorado in 1975, spent eight years directing the Park East Comprehensive Mental Health Center in northeast Denver, then went into private practice and served as program director for pupil services with the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD).

Tom's background in community psychology led him to some innovative refinements to the SOARS program as initially developed by Rick and Edna. The roots of Tom's innovations run deep.

In the early 1960s, Tom recalls, "I was working at a factory in Brooklyn. I was happy to go to work and enjoyed what I was doing. I couldn't understand why, for most people, work was drudgery and people were grumpy and disgruntled. Through conversing with them, it became 'crystally muddy' for me that whatever was going on wasn't a question of them as people, it was a question of them in their social setting."

Through his subsequent research at the University of Colorado, Park East, BVSD, and on his own, Tom refined his understanding of the critical importance of community support in personal development. "What does it take to maximize learning? We know that learning in communities is more effective than learning as individuals. I see SOARS as a learning community within the context of a larger learning community, UCAR as a whole. The trick is for these to function as one community."

One step in that direction is the comprehensive mentorship within SOARS. Each student, or protege, has four mentors: one in the traditional career sense, one to provide guidance with writing and communications, one to serve as a community liaison, and one (actually, a subset of three other SOARS proteges) to provide peer support. "To my knowledge," says Tom, "it's the first time this extensive an arrangement of mentors has been used in any program like this one."

The response among staff tp a call for mentors was good, says Tom. "We were fortunate to have more scientific and technical volunteers offering research opportunities than we had proteges to fill the slots," he says.

The community mentorships are formalized yet relaxed friendships between SOARS students and staff members. For example, Susan Montgomery-Hodge has been taking her protege, Lacey Holland, horseback riding.

Overall, says Tom, the proteges are off to a good start. "The mutual bonding between proteges and their mentors had already happened by late June. They began to experience themselves as members of the community."

The proteges, chosen from a pool of more than 140 applicants, range in academic level from sophomores to recent bachelor's-level graduates. All of them are committed to applying for graduate school (if not already accepted) and plan to obtain either master's or doctoral degrees in atmospheric science or in a field with a related emphasis. As they progress academically, each will have the option of applying to SOARS for further ten-week research opportunities. Some will continue the work they launch this summer while others, like many students, will shift emphasis as their interests evolve.

SOARS itself continues to evolve as well. Twenty-one UCAR member institutions have committed to sharing the cost of graduate school with UCAR for a SOARS student who meets their grad-school admissions requirements. Support for student research will be forthcoming from NASA (for a student in solar physics) and perhaps from other agencies, complementing the $1.3 million in initial funding from NSF. "The message we are hearing," says Rick, "is that SOARS will provide a vehicle for these agencies to fulfill their own goals for diversity."

According to Tom, there's no reason to doubt that the leaders in atmospheric science of the 21st century will include some of today's SOARS students. He likes to conceptualize that dream as harmony. "Music is one of the primary metaphors of life for me." A prodigious musician as a youngster, Tom attended New York's High School of Music and Art, also the alma mater of actress Diahann Carroll, producer Steven Bochco, and pianist Larry Willis. Managing SOARS, he says, is a matter of orchestrating support and resources so that each protege can conduct her or his career with confidence. "I believe that the necessary ingredients for harmony are ever-present." •BH

General information on the program can be found at http://www.ucar.edu/HR/SOARS/brochure

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Prepared by Jacque Marshall, jacque@ucar.edu, 303-497-8616